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Early Life Origins of ASD and ADHD  

Yuelong Ji, Ramkripa Raghavan, and Xiaobin Wang

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex neurodevelopmental condition characterized by impairments in social interaction and communication and by the presence of restrictive, repetitive behavior. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is another common lifelong neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by three major presentations: predominantly hyperactive/impulsive, predominantly inattentive, and combined. Although ASD and ADHD are different clinical diagnoses, they share various common characteristics, including male dominance, early childhood onset, links to prenatal and perinatal factors, common comorbidity for each other, and, often, persistence into adulthood. They also have both unique and shared risk factors, which originate in early life and have lifelong implications on the affected individuals and families and society. While genetic factors contribute to ASD and ADHD risk, the environmental contribution to ASD and ADHD has been recognized as having potentially equal importance, which raises the hope for early prevention and intervention. Maternal folate levels, maternal metabolic syndrome, and metabolic biomarkers have been associated with the risk of childhood ASD; while maternal high-density lipoprotein, maternal psychosocial stress, and in utero exposure to opioids have been associated with the risk of childhood ADHD. As for shared factors, male sex, preterm birth, placental pathology, and early life exposure to acetaminophen have been associated with both ASD and ADHD. The high rate of comorbidity of ASD and ADHD and their many shared early life risk factors suggest that early identification and intervention of common early life risk factors may be cost-effective to lower the risk of both conditions. Efforts to improve maternal preconception, prenatal, and perinatal health will not only help reduce adverse reproductive and birth outcomes but will also help mitigate the risk of ASD and ADHD associated with those adverse early life events.