Mothers of children with autism are more likely to have had a significantly lower intake of iron than the mothers of normally developing children, according to a University of California Davis study. The research was published in the Sept. 22 online American Journal of Epidemiology.
The study, led by Rebecca J. Schmidt, PhD, an assistant professor in the department of public health sciences at UC Davis and a researcher affiliated with the university’s MIND Institute, is the first to look at the relationship between maternal iron intake and having a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
“Iron is crucial to early brain development, contributing to neurotransmitter production, myelination and immune function. All three of these pathways have been associated with autism,” Schmidt said in a news release.
Schmidt and her colleagues studied 520 pairs of mothers and children with autism and 346 pairs of mothers and typically developing kids. All participants were a part of California’s Childhood Autism Risks from Generics and the Environment study from 2003 to 2009.
The research team assessed maternal iron intake, including vitamins, other nutritional supplements, and breakfast cereals during the three months prior to conception through to the end of pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Study findings showed that mothers of children with autism were much less likely to have taken iron supplements before and during pregnancy than the mothers of normally developing children. In addition, low iron intake was associated with a five-fold greater risk of autism in women 35 years of age or older or those with metabolic conditions, such as obesity, high blood pressure or diabetes.
“While the study needs to be replicated, it reinforces the current practice of taking the recommended dose of pregnancy vitamins and folic acid when pregnant,” Schmidt told HealthDay.
One expert who was not involved in the study acknowledged that the study was one more reason to take iron during the pregnancy, but cautioned that it does not provide a clear-cut cause of autism.
“It isn’t the ‘now-we-know-what-cause-ASD’ answer, but it offers one clue,” said Andrew Adesman, MD, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York. “The study data shows that some women with good iron intake still had kids with ASD,” he added.
Schmidt concurs there are probably multiple risk factors for autism and that it may a combination of risks that lead to the development of the disorder. Still, she advises women who are pregnant or planning to get pregnant to take iron supplements.
“Take vitamins throughout pregnancy, and take the recommended dosage. If there are side-effects, talk to your doctor about how to address them,” said Schmidt.