Ethics in Medicine

UCSF, Stanford Study shows that environment plays bigger role in autism

Kristen Sparrow • July 05, 2011

UCSF, Stanford autism study shows surprises

Erin Allday, Chronicle Staff Writer

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

San Francisco — Environmental factors play a more important role in causing autism than previously assumed and, surprisingly, an even larger role than genetics, according to a new study out of UCSF and Stanford that could force a dramatic swing in the focus of research into the developmental disorder.

The study, published in Monday’s issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry, looked at 192 pairs of twins in California and, using a mathematical model, found that genetics account for about 38 percent of the risk of autism, and environmental factors account for about 62 percent.

Previous twin studies had suggested that autism was highly inheritable, with genetics accounting for roughly 90 percent of all cases worldwide. As such, much recent research into autism has focused on tracking down the genes and unlocking the complex genetic codes that are associated with autism…

Earlier beliefs

For decades in the mid-20th century, autism was linked mostly to environmental factors – specifically, poor parenting, with much of the blame falling on mothers. As rates of autism skyrocketed in the ’80s and ’90s – it’s now thought to affect as many as 1 percent of U.S. children – scientists and patient advocates shifted away from blaming families.

Research has focused on obvious genetic factors for the past 10 or 15 years. Now, scientists said, they hope to broaden the study and look at how genetics and environmental influences work together to cause autism…

Antidepressants’ role?

One study along those lines, also published in Monday’s Archives of General Psychiatry, looked at the possible role of maternal antidepressant use before and during pregnancy. The study of 298 autistic children in the Kaiser Permanente Northern California system found a two-fold increase in risk of the disorder when mothers took antidepressants at some point in the year before giving birth…

It only makes sense that there would be some environmental factor given the dramatic rise in autism in the last 20 years. For some genetic cause to occur so quickly never totally added up. The increase in autism rates certainly does coincide with the liberal use of antidepressants in the general population. I remember reading that Prozac is even found in the ground water in many places. Of course, we can’t jump to conclusions about antidepressants or any other environmental factor, but I’m certain that this might influence prospective mothers’ choice of whether or not to take the medication. Wow. This is pretty big news.

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