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A wrinkle, perhaps in time
to predict autism

The placenta is the Rodney Dangerfield of medical research: it don't get no respect. "Wanting to study it," the New York Times says of Yale School of Medicine researcher Harvey Kliman, "was considered equivalent to someone in the Navy wanting to scrub ships’ toilets with a toothbrush."

But Kliman keeps on scrubbing, and he has hit upon a fascinating finding: the more abnormal creases in a placenta, the likelier the baby's genetic risk for autism. 

The study, published April 25 in the journal Biological Psychiatry, does not prove a link between the creases and actual autism diagnoses; that research has to wait for the children to get older. 

Meanwhile, however, the Times provides an intriguing glimpse at the story behind the research.

Study coauthor Cheryl Walker, of the University of California at Davis, recalls when Kliman first contacted her to ask about procuring placenta samples.

“This person came out of the woodwork and said, ‘I want to study trophoblastic inclusions,’” the medical name for the placenta abnormalities, Walker tells the Times. “Now I’m fairly intelligent and have been an obstetrician for years and I had never heard of them.”

Nor had she heard of Kliman, and evidently the Yale name alone was not enough to instill total confidence. So she sent Kliman 217 placenta samples "and let him think" they were all from babies with high autism risks. In fact, a little more than half had a sibling with autism; the rest were considered low-risk.

Kliman's results, Walker says, were "astonishing": the placentas from at-risk babies were far more likely to have trophoblastic inclusions, and they had more of them.

One in 50 American children are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder every year. "At birth we have a tool now that can tell us who's at risk and who isn't," Kliman tells USA Today. "This gives us the opportunity to intervene at a time when the brain is most plastic and able to transform."

Filed under autism, placenta, Harvey Kliman, School of Medicine
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