Researchers Call for Federal Agencies and Foundations to Expand Explorations into Environmental Autism Etiology

January 04, 2022

Team Suggests the Environment Acts in Concert with Genetic Risk Pathways Affecting Neurodevelopment

A new commentary and study written by eleven different scientists and clinicians, published in the journal Pediatrics, makes a plea for future autism research to have a greater focus on genetic interactions with environmental exposures. Stating that previous research has linked toxic environmental exposures with poorer developmental outcomes, the paper’s authors strongly suggest that the environment acts in concert with genetic risk pathways or affects the intrauterine environment directly. The team states, “We need a full-scale commitment to identify the possibly vast number of chemicals that interact with genomic variation and influence the likelihood that children develop neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism and its associated impairments.” The paper used phthalate exposure to demonstrate how genes and the environment can negatively affect neurodevelopment. Phthalates are a group of chemicals that make plastics more flexible. They are found in many products ranging from shampoos to food packaging. A recent study (among several others) links gestational phthalate exposure to the disruption of how genes make folate, an important compound needed for proper brain development. The research team demonstrated how manipulating an environmental exposure such as the level of folate in a pregnant woman can affect developmental outcomes. For example, pregnant mothers with a low level of folate had an increased risk of giving birth to a child who would develop autism or related behaviors.  On the other hand, mothers who had an appropriate level of folate around the time of conception and early pregnancy protected their fetus from developing autism.  This may be due to folate’s ability to ameliorate the impact of toxic chemicals on the mother and the fetus. In the end, the study’s authors call on governments to test new chemicals for neurodevelopmental toxicity before letting those compounds enter the market. They also make the request for a robust regulatory action to protect women and children from toxic chemicals which could in turn reduce the risk of disabilities associated with autism in future generations. 

Pediatrics Commentary

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