09:37pm Monday 11 November 2019

Potential role of parents' work exposures in autism risk examined

(SACRAMENTO, Calif.) — Could parental exposure to solvents in the workplace be linked to autism spectrum disorder in their children? An exploratory study, led by Erin McCanlies, a research epidemiologist from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), suggests that such exposures could play a role, but further research would be needed to confirm such an association. Their pilot study is published online in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, a Springer journal.

The study suggests that certain solvents were used more commonly in the workplaces of the parents of children with autism, when compared to the parents of unaffected children, though none of the subject exposures rose to the level of statistical significance. Similarly, the parents of children with autism in the study also were more likely to report exposures to asphalt and solvents, when compared to parents of unaffected children. All of these exposures fall into the broader category of solvents, or solvent-containing products

“These findings could reflect differences in how parents remember what happened in the past. Previous research has pointed to parents of ill children remembering better than those of healthy children, and this might apply to the study’s findings,” cautioned Irva Hertz-Picciotto, professor and chief of the Division of Environmental Health in the Department of Public Health Sciences in the UC Davis School of Medicine. Hertz-Picciotto, also an author of the study, is a researcher affiliated with the UC Davis MIND Institute.

The NIOSH researchers and their colleagues used data from the Childhood Autism Risk from Genetics and the Environment (CHARGE) Study, led by Hertz-Picciotto. They carried out exploratory analyses to evaluate whether parents’ exposure to chemicals at work may be associated with autism in their children in a sample of 174 families — 93 children with ASD and 81 with typical development.

Both parents completed telephone interviews to assess exposures during the three months prior to pregnancy, during the pregnancy and either up to birth or weaning their child if their  child was breastfed. In addition, industrial hygienists independently assessed the parents’ exposure levels for their particular job.

“Overall, these results add to the mounting evidence that individual exposures may be important in the development of autism,” McCanlies said. However, these results are preliminary and are not conclusive. Additional research is required to confirm and extend these initial findings.”

The researchers described the study as “a first-pass screen from which results can be used to target future research directions and should therefore not be taken as conclusive.” Further understanding will continue to come through studies that employ larger sample sizes and that investigate interactions between workplace exposures and genetic factors.

At the UC Davis MIND Institute, world-renowned scientists engage in research to find improved treatments as well as the causes and cures for autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, fragile X syndrome, Tourette syndrome and other neurodevelopmental disorders. Advances in neuroscience, molecular biology, genetics, pharmacology and behavioral sciences are making inroads into a better understanding of brain function. The UC Davis MIND Institute draws from these and other disciplines to conduct collaborative, multidisciplinary research. For more information, visit mindinstitute.ucdavis.edu.

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