Study: Autism linked to maternal grandmothers smoking while pregnant

If a child's maternal grandmother smoked during pregnancy, the child will have a significantly higher chance of being diagnosed with autism, according to a study published in the journal Scientific Reports.

For the study, researchers from the University of Bristol in the U.K. analyzed data on more than 14,000 children followed from birth for the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children.

The research team found a female child is 67 percent more likely to display behavioral issues like poor communication skills, social interaction issues and repetitive behaviors. The research team also found grandchildren of maternal grandparents who smoked were 53 percent more likely to be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. An analysis by gender for the 177 children diagnosed with autism in the study could not be conducted because the sample size was not large enough to permit such an examination.

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According to Marcus Pembrey, MD, a professor in the university's school for social and community medicine and one of the study's authors, there are two broad possible explanations for the findings.

"There is DNA damage that is transmitted to the grandchildren or there is some adaptive response to the smoking that leaves the grandchild more vulnerable to ASD. We have no explanation for the sex difference, although we have previously found that grand-maternal smoking is associated with different growth patterns in grandsons and granddaughters," said Dr. Pembrey. "More specifically, we know smoking can damage the DNA of mitochondria — the numerous 'power-packs' contained in every cell, and mitochondria are only transmitted to the next generation via the mother's egg. The initial mitochondrial DNA mutations often have no overt effect in the mother herself, but the impact can increase when transmitted to her own children."

To read the complete study, click here.

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