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Saving your placenta can be beneficial in future diagnoses.

Risk of autism linked to abnormal folds in the placenta

by Amber Gulla
Apr 25, 2013

While saving a newborn’s placenta isn't the first thing on the minds of new mothers, it may be a tool for early diagnosis of autism.

Researchers from the Yale School of Medicine and the University of California, Davis, released a study Thursday that shows a connection between abnormal foldings in a newborn’s placenta and a high risk of autism.

“Imagine looking at one of your fingers and it’s growing into your wrist,” said Dr. Harvey Kliman, a research scientist at Yale University. “That’s a comparison to a trophoblast inclusion, or abnormal folding.”

Although the study is newly published in Biological Psychiatry online, the concept has been in the works for over 15 years.

“By chance someone sent me two cases of placentas of children with Asperger's Syndrome,” he said. Two of these cases were handed to him in one week, which he said was more than just a coincidence. “If it was just one, I might have ignored it, but I thought this couldn’t have the same thing and not mean something.”

Researchers from the MIND Institute at UC Davis collaborated with Kliman and other researchers at Yale University to proceed with this study. The placentas were provided by Dr. Cheryl Walker with the MIND (Medical Investigations of Neurodevelopmental Disorders) Institute.

The researchers looked at 217 placentas as part of the study, cross-referencing the placentas and medical history. Of the total, 117 were from babies of at-risk families where a sibling had autism and the other hundred were from families with no known risk. After studying the placentas, researchers learned that those from the control group contained two or less trophoblast inclusions. The placentas from the at-risk group, had as many as 15 of the abnormal folds.

According to Kliman in a press release, a placenta containing four or more trophoblast inclusions can predict about a 97 percent chance of a child being at risk for autism.

As stated in the published study, Placental Trophoblast Inclusions in Autism Spectrum Disorder, “trophoblast inclusions have been suggested to result from a disproportionately" larger inner layer of the placenta compared to the outer layer. Folds in the inner layer allows it to fit.  

Being able to identify a child’s risk of autism through a placenta may be one way to lead to earlier diagnosis, according to the researchers. Amanda Parker, program director at Chicago Education Project, works with children through early intervention.

“Typically, children are diagnosed around the age of 3, but I work with children as [young] as 18 months,” she said. “With early intervention, we could treat them at an earlier age and reform pathways in the brain.”

Even though the study is a new way to help detect autism earlier in children, the only other known way of identifying a child’s risk is through family. “I do know that there is a definite predisposition if parents already have a child with autism,” said Parker. And according to the study’s press release, families with autistic children are nine times more probable to have another child with autism or at risk of it.

Early intervention is a way professionals help children with autism, which Parker said applied behavioral analysis is useful. “It’s a way of breaking down skills into small steps to be able to improve things like social skills,” she said.

While many wait until a positive diagnosis, Kliman believes immediate intervention is best. “We’re suggesting all you need to do is begin this behavioral intervention now,” he said. “Start them right away, forget the tests, and just start doing things.”