LONDON (CBS Atlanta) – Children who develop autism are exposed to elevated levels of steroid hormones while in the womb, reports Medical Express. Steroid hormones include testosterone, progesterone and cortisol.

Scientists studied nearly 20,000 amniotic fluid samples from males born in Denmark between 1993 and 1999. They identified 128 who were later diagnosed with  autism, Asperger syndrome or other developmental disorders.

Lead author Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge says it’s the first time they’ve identified non-genetic markers for autism. “We previously knew that elevated prenatal testosterone is associated with slower social and language development, better attention to detail, and more autistic traits,” he said. “Now, for the first time, we have also shown that these steroid hormones are elevated in children clinically diagnosed with autism.”

Steroid hormones have a major influence over how instructions in the genetic code are translated into the proteins that drive cell growth. Altering this process while the building blocks for the brain are constructed may help explain how genetic risk factors for autism develop, say the researchers.

Study co-author Dr. Michael Lombardo said the findings show how embryonic development can lead to a diagnosis of autism in childhood. “This result potentially has very important implications about the early biological mechanisms that alter brain development in autism and also pinpoints an important window in fetal development when such mechanisms exert their effects.”

The finding may help explain why autism is more common in males than females, but the researchers caution it should not be used to screen for the condition.  “The value of the new results lies in identifying key biological mechanisms during fetal development that could play important roles in atypical brain development in autism,” said Baron-Cohen.

About 1 in 68 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder, according to the CDC.

The results are published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

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