Can breastfeeding help prevent autism?

By Missy Jaramillo

Can breastfeeding help prevent autism?

Instances of autism are on the rise, and medical researchers are increasingly desperate to learn as much as possible about the cause as well as any potential cure for this disorder. Recently, a study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health found that the earliest indicator of autism, present even in the first months of a child's life, is whether or not he or she shows interest in making eye contact with others.

Now, research published in the journal Medical Hypotheses is suggesting that the levels of a certain growth protein may help doctors and parents determine whether a particular child is likely to develop autism, and that this test can be done shortly after birth.

Gary Steinman, M.D., Ph.D., a New York-based physician and researcher from the Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine, has called for the testing of infants' umbilical cord blood in order to determine the levels of insulin-like growth factor, or IGF, the growth protein in question. Steinman's hypothesis is that lower levels of this growth protein may serve as an indicator of later autism from the child's birth. He further postulated that this growth protein may be supplemented by the proteins found in a mother's natural breast milk, and that infants who are breastfed may be able to avert autism by receiving these essential growth proteins from their mothers milk, as a part of natural baby development.

What this means for the future of autism
Following Steinman's advice, medical clinicians would collect umbilical cord blood for testing the IGF levels immediately after birth. However, Steinman said that clinicians may also use traditional heel-stick blood testing, which typically occurs one or two days after birth to test for metabolic regularity. The data from these tests would then be compared to a neurologic evaluation of the baby at 18 to 36 months.

"By assessing our own research, 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," said Steinman."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."

Steinman's hypothesis, if proved accurate, would be a major breakthrough in the detection and prevention of autism. If correct, doctors would then be able to screen women for potential risks during the early stages of their pregnancy, such as those who take certain IGF-reducing drugs, including Somavert®, Sandostatin®, Parlodel® and several experimental IGF receptor antagonists.

Currently, 1 in every 88 children are affected by autism spectrum disorders, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For male children, that number i 1 in 54. These diagnoses include not only classic autism, but also variations of the disorder such as Asperger's syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified.

Children affected by these conditions often do best when doctors are able to diagnose and address them early, enabling parents and other health professionals to determine their individual needs and work to meet them more effectively. If Steinman's hypothesis is correct, doctors may have the leverage they need to diagnose and possibly prevent the condition, starting at the first stages of pregnancy.

Are you excited to hear about the latest progress on autism disorder? Let us know what you think in the comments section.