Unraveling a suspected cause of cognitive deficits

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A University of Rochester Medical Center researcher has won a $2 million grant to further research that promises to help unravel a suspected cause of autism, attention- deficit/hyperactivity disorder and other cognitive deficits that appear to be increasingly affecting children.

Autism is an incompletely understood condition whose effects fall on a spectrum ranging from a nearly complete inability to communicate or process visual and auditory stimuli to relatively mild cognitive shortfalls leading to habitual inappropriate behavior in social interactions.

The Centers for Disease Control calculate that as of 2014 one in 59 children born in the United States had been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum by age 8. That estimate is up from one in 150 in 2000. According to the CDC, the slice of U.S. children diagnosed with ADHD went from 4.4 percent in 2003 to 6.1 percent in 2016. Some 14 percent of ADHD children are also on autism spectrum, the CDC found.

While the number of children diagnosed with such cognitive disorders is rising, a definitive answer to what causes them has remained elusive.

Margot Mayer-Proschel

Spurred by studies that found children of mothers with iron deficiencies during pregnancy are more likely to suffer autism, ADHD and learning disabilities, URMC researcher Margot Mayer-Proschel’s work has centered on gestational iron deficiency.

So far, her investigations have pinpointed a critical period during pregnancy when lack of iron negatively affects development of fetal brain cells and nerve connections.

Investigating changes in the brains of the offspring of iron-deficient pregnant mice, Mayer-Proschel has determined that nerve cells in the brains of pups born to iron-deficient mouse mothers behave abnormally. She has further determined that though such damage apparently traces to gestational iron deficiency, administering iron supplements later in life does not fix it.

Buoyed by the recent grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Mayer-Proschel hopes to drill down further into the relationship between maternal gestational iron deficiency and brain cell malfunctions in iron-deprived mothers’ offspring.

Current standards of prenatal care include blood tests to determine mothers’ iron levels and administration of dietary supplements to correct iron deficiency. But maternal blood tests do not tell pediatricians whether developing infants are getting proper levels of iron and a host of factors can interfere with a pregnant woman’s proper absorption of iron.

Ultimately, Mayer-Proschel hopes, her research will lead to more precise methods of monitoring fetal iron, improved standards for prenatal care and fewer children with autism, ADHD or other cognitive impairments.


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