Lifestyle & Belief

Autism risk could be tied to newborn's placenta, study finds

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A visitor views a human specimen of placenta blood vessels during the 'Human Body's Wonder Scientific Travelling Exhibition.' A new study has found abnormal folds in the placenta may be a predictor of autism.

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Autism, which usually isn't diagnosed until children are toddlers, may be predicted by creases and folds in a newborn's placenta, according to a new study. 

The placenta, which provides fetuses with nutrients from the mother during pregnancy, is usually discarded after birth — but the study, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, found that it could be a roadmap to determining autism risk in children. 

"At birth we have a tool now that can tell us who's at risk and who isn't at risk for autism," said the study's main author, Yale researcher Dr. Harvey Kliman. "This gives us the opportunity to intervene at a time when the brain is most plastic and able to transform."

Dr. Kliman and his team, including an initially-skeptical obstetrician-gynecologist Dr. Cheryl K. Walker, analyzed "Milky Way bar-size sections" of placentas from 217 newborns, and found that those with abnormal creases, called trophoblast inclusions, may be more prone to autism. 

While "two-thirds of the low-risk placentas had no inclusions...77 high-risk placentas had inclusions, 48 of them had two or more, including 16 with between 5 and 15 inclusions," the New York Times reported

Though the scientists behind the study still need to wait at least one more year to see if their predictions ring true — the children analyzed were between 2 and 5 years old, and may not be diagnosed until later on — the idea that a biomarker, or early indicator, for autism exists is promising. 

“I think it’s a great way for parents to say, ‘O.K., we have some risk factors; we’re not going to ignore it,'" said Dr. Chris Mann Sullivan, who had her placenta analysed by Dr. Kliman after her daughter was born and began early intensive treatment after 5 inclusions were found. 

However, Dr. Kliman noted that more research is needed in order to solidify the link, calling the placenta a “check-engine light, a marker of: something’s wrong, but I don’t know what it is,” according to the Times.

However, the study may pave the way for the placenta to become a more legitimate focus of study for early prediction of other diseases. 

Autism has spiked in the United States, with one in 50 schoolchildren in the US being diagnosed every year, far more than the original government estimate of one in 88. 

More from GlobalPost: Autism: 1 in 50 US schoolchildren have it, says CDC