Jaundice in Newborns Could Be Linked to Autism, Researchers Say

Filed under: Medical Conditions, News, In The News, Weird But True, Research Reveals: Babies, New In Pop Culture

jaundice newborn picture

Danish researchers say jaundice in newborns could be related to autism. Credit: Getty Images

Some researchers have a jaundiced view of autism.

Literally.

They claim newborns who have jaundice might face a higher risk of the developmental condition. Others say it is the researchers' conclusions that are jaundiced.

BusinessWeek.com reports Danish researchers analyzed data from some 734,000 children born in Denmark between 1994 and 2004. And, while something may not be rotten in Denmark, it's certainly suspicious.

At least 67 percent of the babies who developed serious jaundice shortly after arrival were eventually diagnosed with autism and were more likely to develop other types of "psychological development" delays, according to the study.

Dr. Gary Goldstein, a professor of pediatrics and neurology at Johns Hopkins University, tells BusinessWeek this doesn't really prove a whole heck of a lot.

The authors of the study didn't confirm the children had autism either by looking at their medical charts or doing actual exams, he says, nor did they measure the bilirubin levels in the children's blood.

Jaundice occurs when bilirubin, a byproduct of the breakdown of red blood cells, builds up in the blood. This is what gives the skin and whites of the eyes a yellowish tinge.

Bilirubin is usually broken down by the liver and excreted as bile through the intestines. However, some babies don't have livers mature enough to do the job.

Measuring bilirubin would be essential for connecting jaundice with autism, Goldstein tells BusinessWeek.

"Bilirubin is a neurotoxin that can impact the speech, language and hearing pathways of the brain," he says. "So you can imagine why, if someone was genetically prone to autism, it could be a trigger."

The incidence of autism in the study also seem to ebb and flow depending on the season. Jaundiced babies were more likely to develop autism if they were born in the fall or winter or if their mothers had given birth before. First-born children born in the spring and summer were less likely to be autistic.

The study will be published in the November edition of the journal Pediatrics.

Given all the variables, Alycia Halladay, director of research for environmental sciences at Autism Speaks, tells BusinessWeek more work needs to be done.

"It's an interesting finding that should be followed up with more mechanistic studies," she says.

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