Study hints at Jaundice-Autism Link
A study recently published in the medical journal Pediatrics concludes that there may be a link between jaundice in newborns and the risk for developing autism. Specifically, newborns who have serious jaundice have a 67% increased risk of developing autism. In addition, infants with jaundice also have a higher incidence of psychological developmental delays, almost 90% higher, when compared to non-jaundiced newborns.
Some previous research studies have not demonstrated such a link between jaundice and autism.
Does jaundice (caused by elevated level of bilirubin in the blood, called “hyperbilirubinemia”), actually causes autism?
This is still unclear. At the present, more studies need to be done to determine if the link is real, or if it was just a fluke result. Interestingly, the jaundice-autism link did not exist for first born children, premature infants, and those born in the summer and spring months.
Infants born in winter months may be more susceptible to certain viral infections and may be exposed to less sunlight which can moderate the effects of hyperbilirubinemia. In fact, the treatment for clinically significant jaundice involves the use of “phototherapy” to breakdown bilirubin into a less toxic form which is also more easily excreted in the urine. Premature infants may complete critical brain development outside of the womb at around term, or 40 weeks, such that their brains are protected from potentially toxic effects of bilirubin at this time.
The researchers who completed the study noted that the jaundice-autism link may also extend to cases of moderate hyperbilirubinemia as their research looked at only severe cases of hyperbilirubinemia and their association with autism.
However, parents are cautioned that most cases of jaundice, which is characterized by a yellowish discoloration of the skin, are mild and most likely harmless.
How dangerous are high bilirubin levels dangerous?
Billirubin is a neurotoxin, and moderate levels of bilirubin once thought to be relatively safe are now being associated with subtle psychological impairments in very young children. A controversy that many hospitals struggle with is whether or not universal bilirubin level testing should be used to screen all infants for elevated levels.
Usually pediatricians use visual observations to begin thinking about screening a child for hyperbiliruinemia with a blood test, however, newer technology which uses optical sensors could standardize screening for hyperbilirubinemia. Such automated screening for jaundice could increase the detection of potentially dangerous hyperbilirubinemia, especially in minority children in which jaundice may be harder to detect. Some children with severe hyperbilirubinemia who do not get adequate treatment will develop a devastating neurological condition called, “kernicterus”, which can cause visual problems, hearing problems, neurological problems leading to movement disorders, and dental problems.
To find out a little bit more about Universal Bilirubin Level Testing in Newborns click here.
Can Autism Be Prevented?
It is entirely possible that underlying environmental and/or genetic factors may lead to a higher risk for both newborn jaundice and autism diagnosed later in life. Most experts believe that there are multiple inciting events or “triggers” which can lead to abnormal brain development which leads to a diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder. Identifying and eliminating these triggers could in the future be used to reduce the incidence of autism, which is estimated to be as high as 1 in 110 children.
Does therapy help a child with autism?
The answer is unequivocally yes. This is why pediatricians are being trained to recognize the early symptoms of autism as the early the child gets treatment, the better their prognosis will be. Newer research hints that rather than being a condition of permanent psychological disability, adults with autism can in many cases experience great improvements.
To learn some more about the symptoms of autism click here.