DEC 10, 2015 03:12 AM PST

A Labor Drug and Stress Could Cause Autism and Epilepsy

When a woman is pregnant there are many happy moments, but there are stressful times as well. Whether it’s nausea, swelling or other more serious pregnancy complications, expectant mothers can have a lot of anxiety. Stress is bad for anyone, but especially bad for pregnant women. Anxiety over the pregnancy can increase the risk of complications, which in turn can up the stress level of the mom, creating a vicious cycle of risk and stress.
Epilepsy and autism could have an external cause

Pre-term labor is a complication that occurs in roughly 80% of pregnant women to some degree. Sometimes it’s minor, but in 11% of pregnancies the child is delivered prematurely at less that 37 weeks gestation. A drug often given to women to stop pre-term labor from progressing to premature birth is now being studied to see if it can cause brain disorders in the fetus such as autism or epilepsy.
Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have completed research that suggests the combination of pre-natal stress and the medication terbutaline, normally used for asthma attacks, could put women at a higher risk for having children born with both autism and epilepsy. 
The research which was published in The Journal of Neuroscience, indicates that when the drug of terbutaline is used to delay labor, there is an increased risk of the fetus developing autistic like behaviors co-morbidly with epilepsy. The risk is only elevated when the mother is also experiencing high levels of stress, which, if she is in early labor, is almost always a given. Terbutaline is not used for more than 48-72 hours and only to stop active labor in a patient in the early stages of pregnancy where delivery of the child would have a significant chance for a poor outcome. In 2011 the FDA issued a warning on the risks of cardiac complications if terbutaline was used for longer than 3 days, requiring the manufacturer to include the warning in the packaging of the drug. 

 In a press release from CU Boulder Daniel Barth, a professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience and a co-author of the study said, “With this new animal-based research model in place, we can start looking at neurological mechanisms that we haven’t been able to in the past and explore why there is a connection between epilepsy and autism and how to decrease risk for both disorders.” 

Autism and epilepsy often show up together in patients. According to the website, one in four patients with autism will develop a seizure disorder. While there is a fair amount of research on the genetic components of these two neurological disorders, evidence linking them to environmental factors has been scarce.
The CU-Boulder researchers looked at the effects of stress and terbutaline separately and while each can contribute to the increased risk of autism, it was the combination of the two factors that upped the ante to include the risk and development of epilepsy, a serious neurological disorder for which there is no known cure. The research was supported by grants from Autism Speaks and the U.S. Army Medical Research and Material Command.
In an interview with ABC affiliate 7 News Denver, Dr. Barth said,  “We’ve learned that this combination of risk factors is far greater than either one alone. This is the first research in this area to show how environmental factors can operate in tandem rather than individually.” Check out the video below to hear more of this interview and the study results.
About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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