Using electronic medical records and birth information, scientists have been able to find more evidence supporting a link between autism spectrum disorder and pregnant mothers with obesity and diabetes, according to a news release.

OT_News-01The findings from researchers at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center are reported in a study posted online Jan. 29 ahead of publication by the journal Autism Research. An estimated 1 out of 45 children is affected by ASD, according to the CDC. Genetics, environment and the interaction of both are suspected. The increasing prevalence of ASD also happens to mirror increases in obesity and diabetes, the researchers noted.

“Although previous studies report a link between maternal obesity and diabetes during pregnancy to autism, we demonstrate that electronic medical data can verify and establish the extent of this link across large populations,” study senior author Katherine Bowers, PhD, MPH, a member of the Division of Biostatistics and Epidemiology at Cincinnati Children’s, said in the release.

“Without placing any burden on study participants or the costs of developing an epidemiologic study from scratch, we can use the vast amounts of data already collected for clinical purposes to conduct broad population-based studies on this link to autism,” she said in the release. “We are very excited about the future studies we can do with this ability.”

According to study data, pregnant mothers with obesity or gestational diabetes were 1.5 times more likely to have a child with ASD. The increased risk of ASD for pregnant mothers with both obesity and gestational diabetes was two-fold, results showed. The findings fit into an increasing body of evidence that obesity and gestational diabetes might be associated with the development of autism.

The team, which included Bowers, her colleagues and collaborators in the Division of Biomedical Informatics at Cincinnati Children’s, analyzed a variety of medical record and birth data from patients and mothers to help identify risk factors. Using birth records from Southwest Ohio (part of Cincinnati Children’s primary service area) the researchers compared mothers who had a child diagnosed with ASD with mothers of children diagnosed with a nonautism developmental disorder. They also included in their comparison mothers with children who were not diagnosed with developmental disorders.

The authors said they were fortunate to have access to a large number of electronic medical records from the Cincinnati Children’s Kelly O’Leary Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders. Unlike past studies, the researchers were able to use novel language processing techniques to analyze free text medical notes and confirm autism diagnoses expressed as a numerical code, according to the release.

Among study participants, 487 mothers had a child with ASD, 1,495 had a child with another type of developmental disorder, and 35,734 mothers of children without ASD or a developmental disorder were included for control. The average age of mothers having children with ASD was 28.6 years, and 27.4 years for both mothers of children with a developmental disorder and for controls.

Given the increased prevalence of children with ASD, the researchers noted the importance of using their findings collaboratively to conduct much larger multi-institutional studies.

The study was funded in part by an Institutional Clinical and Translational Science Award and the National Institutes of Health/National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.

Full study: