Expert thinks autism may be linked to type 2 diabetes

Rates of type 2 diabetes and autism are increasing in the general public, and one expert believes they may share a similar cause.

Rice University researcher Michael Stern recently pointed out in the journal Frontiers in Cellular Endocrinology that autism and type 2 diabetes appear to have a common early warning sign. Elevated levels of insulin in the blood are often found in people with either condition.

Furthermore, children with autism are known to have four genetic alterations that result in greater production of certain proteins that may disrupt insulin signalling pathways.

The hypothesis could carry a great deal of significance because medical professionals are currently unsure of what causes autism. Despite tremendous amounts of research in recent years, no one has been able to turn up a definitive cause. Stern believes that a mother's metabolic health may have a lot to do with insulin risk.

He said that women may need to seriously address problems with glucose tolerance before they decide to become pregnant, as any metabolic dysfunction could have a significant impact on a child's neurological development. In fact, Stern said evidence has shown that gestational diabetes is one of the most common risk factors for autism in children.

The hypothesis reflects a growing understanding of the role insulin plays in the body. It was previously thought that the hormone was simply involved in regulating blood sugar levels, but Stern said evidence increasingly suggests that it also functions in neural cells.

While there is no hard evidence of the connection at this point, Stern said researchers should test the effects of low-carb diets in autistic children. If their symptoms improve, it would show that insulin and glucose levels play key roles in the neurological disorder.