Aim of the project

Extending previous work in the area of hormones, this project comprises of three smaller studies.

Study 1 will analyse samples from an existing novel cohort of mothers who have a diagnosis of autism and a control group of typical mothers. The differences in hormone levels in maternal serum and infant saliva samples will be examined.  The hormones that will be analysed will include testosterone, dihydrotestosterone, estradiol, melatonin and luteinizing hormone. 

Study 2 will investigate how both behaviour, including autistic traits sex-linked cognition, and facial morphology are related to current hormone levels and fetal testosterone levels measured during pregnancy. A recent ARC discovery, in collaboration with the Danish Biobank, has shown that fetal testosterone is elevated in in the womb in pregnancies that result in autism. By looking at cognitive testing, questionnaires, physical measurements and facial morphology scans we hope to understand what causes variation in autistic traits in the general population, why autism is more common in boys.

Study 3 will ask participants of the Pregnancy Outcome Predication Study (POPS) (funded by the MRC and based at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge) to complete measures of autistic traits in their child, which will be compared to measures of hormone levels collected during the mother’s pregnancy. Participants in this unique study have given blood samples for maternal serum and plasma and taken part in additional research ultrasound scans at 20, 28 and 36 weeks. This extension to the POPS study will allow 3,350 parents of children, now aged 4-9 years, to participate.

Study 4 (funded in May 2018) will measure the development and cognitive outcomes of babies using ultrasound scans and serum samples from the mother.   This study will focus specifically on placental function and the levels of hormones that can be measured in the placenta.  The researchers believe that it is here that genetic, environmental, maternal and foetal risk factors converge to affect long-term brain development.

Importance of research

By looking at the levels of hormones alongside cognitive testing, questionnaires, physical measurements and facial morphology scans we hope to understand what causes variation in autistic traits in the general population and why autism is more common in boys.

If a relationship between maternal hormone levels and autistic traits in the child is confirmed, biomarkers can be identified which could lead to earlier diagnosis.

Scientists involved

  • Dr Amber Ruigrok
  • Dr Rosie Holt
  • Alex Tsompanidis
  • Gwilym Renouf 
  • Clara Buckingham
  • Ruth Hanson

Key findings

This project will run until 2020

Funding for Study 2 was also received from the University of Western Australia in collaboration with Dr Diana Tan.