Herpes, Autism Link: Moms With Sexually Transmitted Virus Can Double Baby's Autism Risk, Says Study
Moms infected with the sexually transmitted virus herpes during pregnancy could double the risk of giving birth to a baby with autism, a new study revealed. Experts said that inflammation due to the infection could affect the brain of the fetus developing in the womb.
The study was the first to link herpes and autism. Experts from the Columbia University's Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia published their findings in the journal mSphere.
Experts studied records of pregnant women during the 1990s from the Autism Birth Cohort in Norway. Of these, 442 moms have a child with autism and 464 moms have a child without autism.
Experts looked into blood samples that tested the mother's immune responses to HSV-1 (herpes, cold sores), HSV-2 (genital herpes), rubella and cytomegalovirus, as well as for toxoplasmosis parasite. The moms with higher HSV-2 antibodies midway through the pregnancy, or around 18 weeks, mostly had babies who were eventually diagnosed with autism. The other viruses had no such results or risks.
It's not the herpes virus per se that could raise the babies' autism risk. It's actually due to the mother's immune response to the infection.
"We believe the mother's immune response to HSV-2 could be disrupting fetal central nervous system development, raising risk for autism," lead study author Milada Mahic said, per Science Daily. Their findings suggested that placental inflammation exposes fetuses to molecules the mother's antibodies produce due to the infection.
According to NBC, herpes is an incurable but manageable disease. Once a person gets the virus, the infections flare up at any time, including during pregnancy.
The study, however, is not suggesting that any mom with the sexually transmitted disease will have a baby with autism. It also doesn't suggest for moms to take anti-herpes and anti-inflammatory drugs while pregnant without validating with the doctors first. "I think that this makes a very strong case for continuing to try to develop herpes simplex vaccines," co-study author Dr. Iain Lipkin said.