CU Boulder study links prenatal stress combined with labor drug to autism, epilepsy

DENVER - We know too much stress is bad for your health, but what kind of effect can it have on an unborn baby? Researchers at CU Boulder are now linking prenatal stress and a labor medication to autism and epilepsy.

Scientists say this is an important medical breakthrough, especially since autism is on the rise. The CDC says 1 in 45 children have the developmental disorder. In the past, researchers have looked mostly at genetics, but now they are looking at environmental factors as well.

“Thirty percent of people who have autism also have epilepsy and vice-versa,” said Daniel Barth, professor of neuroscience at CU Boulder.

Previous research suggests genetics play a big role in developing both of these syndromes, but Barth and other CU researchers are now pinpointing prenatal stress.

“Maternal stress has been linked to a lot of developmental disorders. It's kind of a new thing that people are looking at pretty intensely right now,” he said, “and what we're finding is that these environmental factors, stress and then combined with another drug can in and of itself, without any genetics, cause autism and epilepsy.”

It is a drug called terbutaline. Women take terbutaline to fight pre-term labor.

“We're discovering terbutaline preceded by stress can be devastating. Either one alone doesn't do very much but when you combine them together it has a tremendous amplifying effect,” Barth said. 

But if the drug is necessary, scientists say it becomes even more critical to reduce stress during pregnancy.

“Stress reduction is important for anyone, not just for pregnant women,” said Lauren Williams with Belly Bliss in Denver. “Sometimes by telling women to not stress out that can cause them more stress.”

“Yoga is a great way for moms to come get in touch with their bodies, get a little time out for themselves for them and their babies,” Williams said.

Doctors will have to assess the risk of prescribing this particular drug moving forward, or they'll have to find another drug that can do the job just as well without increasing the odds of having a baby born with autism and/or epilepsy. 

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