Maternal infections during pregnancy are associated with intellectual disability and autism in exposed children. Whether these associations are causal, and therefore should be targets of preventive strategies, remains unknown. We aimed to investigate these associations, to determine whether there is a causal role of maternal infection during pregnancy for children's risk of autism and intellectual disability, by accounting for unmeasured familial factors.
Although infections in pregnant women are associated with both autism and intellectual disability in their children, the association with autism does not appear to reflect a causal relationship, but is more likely to be explained by factors shared between family members such as genetic variation or aspects of the shared environment. Thus, infection prevention is not expected to reduce autism incidence. For intellectual disability, unmeasured familial factors might not fully explain the observed associations, and a causal role of maternal infections cannot be excluded. Causal effects of specific but rare infections or infections not requiring health care contact cannot be excluded in either autism or intellectual disability.
Reference: Brynge M, Sjöqvist H, Gardner RM, Lee BK, Dalman C, Karlsson H. Maternal infection during pregnancy and likelihood of autism and intellectual disability in children in Sweden: a negative control and sibling comparison cohort study. Lancet Psychiatry. 2022 Sep 5:S2215-0366(22)00264-4. doi: 10.1016/S2215-0366(22)00264-4.