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The Sins of the Fathers—Is Paternal Obesity Linked to Autism Risk?

May. 22, 2014|433 views

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Plenty of research on the possible causes of autism has focused on mothers. For instance, scientists have wondered if a mother is
obese, does it increase the risk that she’ll give birth to a baby with developmental disabilities? According to a new study out of Norway, probably not. But, surprisingly, when fathers were obese, their offspring were at greater risk of having one of these disorders. 

The study, which examined the health of 90,000 children and their parents, revealed that the risk of autism and Asperger's syndrome (Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD) nearly doubled if an infant’s father was obese. In a press release issued by the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, Dr. Pål Surén spoke about his reaction to the results of his research. 

“We were very surprised by these findings, because we expected that maternal obesity would be the main risk factor for the development of ASD. It means that we have had too much focus on the mother and too little on the father. This probably reflects the fact that we have given greater focus to conditions in pregnancy, such as the growth environment for the fetus in the womb, than both environmental and genetic factors before conception.”

The link between a father’s body weight and his child’s risk of ASD could have something to do with a genetic defect, which has been linked to extreme obesity. Or it could have to do with epigenetics; the emerging science of the ways in which environmental factors are able to switch genes on or off, even before birth. Some of these epigenetic changes are passed down for generations.

The implications are chilling. Both ASD and obesity are on the rise around the world. “If there is a correlation between obesity and ASD, this is a risk factor where the incidence is increasing in the population, said Surén. “Further research is therefore of great importance to public health.”

Suren P, et al. Parental obesity and risk of autism spectrum disorder. Pediatrics, 2014 DOI: 10.1542/peds.2013-3664

Tags:  autism, obesity
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