Study: Autism May Be Related to Birth Stress


With autism rates soaring over the past 20 years, researchers are constantly looking for prevention or treatment methods. One scientist, Yehezkel Ben-Ari of the Mediterranean Institute of Neurobiology in Marseille, France believes autistic children may have suffered stress at birth. As a mother of three autistic children, this peaked my interest, especially since two of them suffered birth trauma.

While Ben-Ari has done some studies on autistic children, most of his research has been limited to mice and rats. Even so, there are noted parallels that seem to make the study applicable to humans in many ways. His focus is a simple diuretic called bumetanide that reduces levels of chloride in cells. As a diuretic, it helps lower blood pressure by making a person urinate more, reducing fluid in the body.

Ben-Ari’s study says in utero, rats and mice brains are basically hyper, likely true in humans as well, and the chloride that’s inside neurons appears to assist in that fast development. Oxytocin, known as the “love hormone” and is responsible for labor, breastfeeding and maternal bonding, calms down the chloride ions during labor, which helps babies deal with the stress of birth.

Since autism seems to occur more often in babies who experienced a stressful birth, Ben-Ari and his colleagues believe it’s possible that the switch to calm the chloride ions down may not happen in babies who end up autistic. One of my boys had severe facial and head injuries from compression when the edge of my cervix wouldn’t retract. The other had the umbilical cord looped around his neck twice and was nearly strangulated during the 20 minutes it took to remove it.

While they can’t replicate it exactly in rodents, Ben-Ari’s team used two models of autism. In one group, the mice had the most common genetic mutation associated with the human form. The second group consisted of rats “exposed in utero to sodium valproate, an epilepsy drug known to significantly increase risk of autism in children whose mothers take the medication.”

The team used the drug bumetanide, which blocks chloride transport channels in neurons and is used to lower blood pressure, to see if it would lower chloride and restore normal neuron function in the autistic rodents. When given to pregnant rodents, it cured the offspring of both groups and even helped in autistic adult rodents. Since every attempt to find an effective drug has failed, this is very exciting news.

In 2012, the team did some trials on autistic children with some success. However, several issues need to be addressed. The biggest obstacle is the fact that there’s no way to detect autistic babies in utero. There’s also some concern over the fact that Ben-Ari has patented a version of bumetanide and formed a company, Neurochlore, that plans to test it on children, so he would profit from its success.

Some scientists question the vast difference between the human brain and rodent brain, but any progress towards the understanding, treatment or even a cure is welcome. One scientist, neuroscientist Emanuel DiCicco-Bloom, says the study is “pretty awesome” and other autism scientists are thrilled about the discovery. Andrew Zimmerman, a pediatric neurologist and autism expert at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, Mass., says it’s a “pretty incredible finding and really great.”

It’s believed that the earlier autistic children are diagnosed the better because treatment is more effective the earlier it starts. Ben-Ari is doing trials on kids as young as 2. It’s usually discovered at about 4 years old. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 88 children in the United States are autistic, and the number is rising.

Ben-Ari says, “It’s important for people to understand there is no drug to cure a medical disease as complicated as autism.”

There’s still many years of testing and trials ahead, but hopefully, this is one step closer to a cure.