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Abnormal Head Growth Associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Begins in Uterus

In the largest and most comprehensive study to date, researchers have found abnormalities in fetal head growth in children diagnosed with ASD in childhood

March 22, 2021:Researchers at The National Autism Research Center of Israel at BGU and Soroka University Medical Center have found abnormalities in fetal head growth in children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in childhood.

Their findings were recently published in the journal Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

In this study, the largest and most comprehensive study to date, the researchers compared prenatal ultrasound data from the second and/or third trimester of 174 children later diagnosed with ASD at the National Autism Research Center of Israel, to the ultrasound data of their unaffected siblings as well as to ultrasound data of typically developed children from the general population.

Three main findings emerge from the study. First, fetuses later diagnosed with ASD and their typically developing siblings have narrower heads during mid-gestation compared to the control group, thus suggesting that such fetus growth abnormality is a familial trait of ASD. Second, ASD-related head growth abnormalities are modulated by the sex of the fetus with male and female fetuses showing different head shapes during gestation. Third, fetal head anomalies appear to be associated with the severity of ASD.

“Previous studies have found abnormalities in head growth among children with ASD during childhood, but prenatal studies about this phenomenon had inconclusive results. Our findings suggest that abnormalities in head growth that are associated with ASD begin in mid-gestation and that such crucial diagnostic information can be gleaned from prenatal ultrasounds,” says lead author Prof. Idan Menashe of BGU’s Department of Public Health, Faculty of Health Sciences.

“This research is representative of the ongoing collaboration between doctors and researchers at the National Autism Research Center of Israel,” says Dr. Gal Meiri, head of the Pediatric Psychiatry Unit at Soroka and medical director of the Center, “This collaboration provides a strong foundation for in-depth studies based on our database that enables us to identify risk factors and to characterize ASD sub-types. Other studies at the center help us understand ASD development, the connection between biological, developmental, and behavioral characteristics. We hope to be able to personalize care in the future during the diagnosis and perhaps even before the official diagnosis.”

The study was conducted by MD/PhD candidate Ohad Regev as part of his doctorate and in collaboration with Gal Cohen, MD Candidate, Dr. Amnon Hadar, MD, Jenny Schuster, BA, MBA, Dr. Hagit Flusser, MD, Dr. Analya Michaelovski, MD, Dr. Gal Meiri, MD, Prof. Ilan Dinstein, PhD, and Prof. Reli Hershkovitch, MD.

This research was supported by the Israel Science Foundation (Grant no. 527/15).

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