Study Finds Breastfeeding Is Key to Autism Prevention

Photo: Shutterstock / The Bump
Photo: Shutterstock / The Bump

A New-York based researcher has found that breastfeeding baby may help prevent autism. The research, performed by Gary Steinman, from the Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine, has found that low levels of an insulin-like growth factor (a protein found in babies and adults) could help predict a baby’s likelihood of developing autism later in life.

What the research says

The report, which appeared in Medical Hypotheses, draws on previous research that links IGF with a of number of growth an neural functions. From the earlier research, Steinman found that for a baby with low protein levels, if IGF is delivered from mom to baby via breastfeeding, it could compensate for any deficiency of the growth factor in newborns. He asserts that if his research is validated by follow-up studies, the case for extended breastfeeding could be a huge proponent of decreasing autism rates.

“By assessing our own research,” he said, “along with dozens of other relevant studies, there is a strong case to be made that IGF — known to be deeply involved in the normal growth and development of babies’ brain cells — also serves a biomarker for autism.This leads to two conclusions. First, we need to more deeply assess this hypothesis by conducting umbilical cord blood tests that measure neonatal levels of this growth factor, and then match those results against future autism occurrence in the maturing child. Second, those who embrace the hypothesis that IGF is indeed an autism biomarker should advocate and encourage breastfeeding as a highly accessible means of supplementing an infant’s natural levels of the protein.”

What can be done for baby

If IGF is found to be a natural defense against autism, newborns born with a low supply of IGF would be breastfed for longer, which would contribute to more-effective brain function as he grows and develops. Because IGF is so important to for baby’s brain cells, having the appropriate amount would help him perform physical and emotional functions like moving, thinking and showing emotion.

IGF stimulates special brain cells that provide an essential insulating material, called myelin, around developing nerves. The material helps to efficiently transmit important messages about everything the brain controls — from physical functions such as movement to mental functions such as sensory perception, thinking and emotions.

How will they prove the hypothesis

Following the initial study’s results, Dr. Steinman is now asking that umbilical cord blood levels be tested for the IGF protein. Doctors would collect the same immediately after baby’s birth to measure IGF levels. He also advises that clinicians use heel-stick blood samples (already collected for newborn screening tests). The data collected from each baby would then be compared against a neurological evaluation of baby somewhere between 18 and 36 months old.

If Steinman’s research proves true in subsequent studies, he plans to introduce a new phase of research based on finding out why IGF levels are low in baby. This research would primarily take place in baby’s second trimester. “Autism takes a huge human toll, not to mention its substantial economic impact on families. These findings send a powerful message to the research community. Our research is consistently indicating a connection between IGF and autism. The medical community needs to vigorously investigate this ostensible connection and validate it once and for all. As we all know full well, the world would reap untold benefits by finding ways to detect, treat and ultimately prevent this disease,” Steinman said in a statement.

What do you think? Could breastfeeding reduce baby’s autism risk?

Plus, more from The Bump:

What Every Parent Needs to Know About Autism

Does Baby’s Birth Weight Put Him at Higher Risk for Autism?

Is This the Earliest Sign of Autism?