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Autism affects 1 in 68 children in the United States. The disorder severely limits communication and interaction, with symptoms varying from mild to extremely debilitating. Currently, autism is incurable, but efforts are constantly being made towards discovering a cure. The means of doing so can vary, but one important factor often lies in being able to understand the mechanism by which these types of disorders manifest. There isn’t a known cause of autism but various speculations have been made; some even accuse vaccinations as being the culprit, despite many studies that have shown that there is no link between vaccines and autism. In any case, more rigorous research needs to be done regarding the identification of autism’s causes. A recent study suggests that ultrasounds, which use sound waves to produce images known as sonograms, may play a role in autism development.

 An ultrasound of twins.

Image source: Chris Sternal-Johnson

Researchers have found that ultrasounds during the first trimester of pregnancy may be associated with more severe symptoms of autism. The study did not intend to search for causes of autism but rather, aimed to answer the question as to why there is such a large spectrum of autism symptoms. They focused primarily on children with autism and correlated differences in autism symptoms to differences in genetic makeup and ultrasound exposure during pregnancy. Some results were unsurprising, as those with genetic mutations known to be associated with autism were expected to have more severe symptoms. More striking, however, was the discovery that children who were exposed to diagnostic ultrasounds during the first trimester of pregnancy appeared to have more severe autism symptoms, such as lower IQ and inability to speak. Interestingly, ultrasounds during the second or third trimesters were not shown to be associated with autism severity. Current FDA guidelines argue against having diagnostic ultrasounds unless absolutely necessary, and the results of this study may further reinforce this notion.

The results of this study can be alarming. Ultrasounds are often used by pregnant mothers for various reasons including sex determination and screening for chromosomal abnormalities. They are generally seen as harmless, but if the results of this study hold, it may be better to delay ultrasounds until the second or third trimester periods. Raising a child with autism can be very challenging; it is important, then, that all potential contributors to autism be thoroughly investigated and pursued as possible therapeutic targets.

Feature Image Source: Bernd Thaller

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