MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
David Beversdorf, M.D.
Associate professor in the departments of radiology, neurology and psychological sciences
University of Missouri and
Missouri University Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders
MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?
Dr. Beversdorf: Our previous work had demonstrated in retrospective surveys a higher incidence of prenatal psychosocial stress exposure during the late 2nd and early 3rd trimester in pregnancies where the offspring had developed autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This had been confirmed in other studies, including a study examining the timing of exposure to tropical storms during pregnancy. However, not everyone exposed to stress during pregnancy has a child with ASD, so we began to look at genetic risk for augmented stress reactivity. This initial exploration involved examination of the interaction between stress exposure during ASD-associated pregnancies and the maternal presence of variations in one gene well known to affect stress reactivity. Variations in this gene were also targeted as they have been associated with ASD in some studies. We found in two independent groups of patients (one in Missouri, one in Ontario, Canada) that maternal presence of at least one copy of the stress-susceptible variant of this gene is associated with the link between maternal stress exposure during this time window of pregnancy and subsequent development of ASD in the offspring.
MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from your report?
Dr. Beversdorf: These findings suggest a novel gene/environment interaction in the development of autism spectrum disorder. Genetics is well known to be a major contributor to ASD, but recent work has suggested that environmental factors may play a significant role. This warrants further explanation, as it may offer many different opportunities for intervention and even possibly prevention. Gene/environment interaction may be particularly important. This work is in need of confirmation in larger samples, but the initial data herein suggests that maternal stress exposure in mothers with greater susceptibility to stress may contribute to a fair proportion of autism spectrum disorder. Formal recommendations can’t be made before further study, but this adds to the growing body of literature suggesting the importance of optimal behavioral health during pregnancy in general.
MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?
Dr. Beversdorf: We have developed an animal model for this gene/environment interaction, allowing us to move forward with exploration of the mechanism of action and assessment of mitigating factors. Also, larger population studies and studies in at risk individuals will allow the exploration of mechanistic biomarkers as well as mitigating factors in the clinical setting. Larger studies will also be needed for exploration of other associated genes, since, due to the small size of this study, we only targeted only one gene variant.
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Patrick M. Hecht, Melissa Hudson, Susan L. Connors, Michael R. Tilley, Xudong Liu, David Q. Beversdorf. Maternal serotonin transporter genotype affects risk for ASD with exposure to prenatal stress. Autism Research, 2016; DOI: 10.1002/aur.1629
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