Researchers have been trying to discover what causes autism for decades. While there are never any clear answers, new studies continuously emerge on the topic. The latest, published in the September 13th issue of Nature, indicates a link between infections, maternal gut bacteria populations during pregnancy, and an increased likelihood of autism.

Not to freak expectant mothers out, but new research seems to suggest that getting sick while pregnant could increase autism risk.

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Two recent studies (of pregnant mice) out of Harvard and MIT suggest that when a pregnant female has an infection that triggers an immune response, her baby has an increased risk for brain abnormalities.

That's right, getting sick while pregnant affects the baby's brain. At least in mice.

According to the recent findings by power scientist couple Huh Jun-ryeol and Gloria Choi, a Harvard Medical School professor and an MIT professor respectively, when a pregnant female mouse has a certain kind of immune response — what they call Maternal Immune Activation (MIA) — her offspring's brain could be affected.

But, before all the pregnant women freak out (more)...

This study comes with some good news. Yes, it indicated a link between getting sick while pregnant and an increased risk of brain abnormalities in the baby.

But the same study also showed that treatment with antibiotics, which kill off some of the mother's gut flora, could mitigate or reverse these abnormalities.

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From the Nature article based on these studies: "The types of bacteria in the mouse’s gut seem to be important. When the scientists used antibiotics to wipe out common gut microorganisms called segmented filamentous bacteria in female mice, this seemed to protect the animals’ babies from the impact of the simulated infection. The offspring of mice given the antibiotic treatment did not show the unusual behaviors, such as reduced sociability and repetitive actions."

If the bacteria that are — or are not — present during pregnancy can affect our babies' brains, and we know which bacteria are harmful, does that mean we can cure brain abnormalities?

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No. It means that scientists are one step closer to understanding one component of brain abnormalities in babies. But the mother's gut flora, or exposure to infections while pregnant, is only one of many factors that have been shown to affect autism rates. And it's not just moms that are on the line here.

An earlier study demonstrated a strong correlation between paternal age and brain abnormalities.

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A 2014 Swedish study found that a child whose father was 45 was 3.5 times more likely to have autism, 13 times more likely to have ADHD, and 25 times more likely to have bipolar disorder compared to a child whose father was 24. Other studies have shown a less significant correlation between paternal age and brain abnormalities.

While still other studies point to maternal age as the risk factor.

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Some studies suggest that the risk of having a child with autism is approximately 50% higher for women over 35 than for women in their 20s. Ahhhh! So much conflicting information!

So which is it? The mother's health, her gut bacteria, her age, or the father's age?

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All of this information is confusing and studies often unveil conflicting insights. Pregnancy is overwhelming as it is, and all parents want to do the right thing to ensure their baby's health. So what do we take away from this?

Many pregnant women these days read and research. A lot. And they are understandably stressed out.


With a world of information (and misinformation) at their fingertips online, it's no wonder expecting parents are confused and stressed.

And of course, too much stress can negatively affect the baby too.


AHHHHH! How are we supposed to cope with all of this and not freak out?

Try to relax.

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OK, so blissful yoga or meditation might not be realistic for every pregnant woman, but it's important to breathe, relax, and de-stress. You can only control so much, so focus on those things first and foremost.

And remember to laugh. Laughter is a terrific stress reliever and hilarious stuff is happening all around us.

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Call your funny friend, watch Monty Python movies or YouTube videos of people falling down. Whatever floats your boat.

Enjoy all the weird stuff.


Pregnancy is weird and sometimes gross. But it's also amazing, and fleeting.

Not everyone loves being pregnant, and that's OK.

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And you have to admit, it's pretty cool when you can see that alien movement from the outside!

We may never understand all the factors that contribute to a child having or not having autism.

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While the new research is exciting and promising, it's only part of the picture. Scientists are working to understand the disorder better, and may have more answers for us soon.