The exact cause of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is not known. However, being unaware of the exact causes of autism doesn’t mean we don’t have many highly accurate hypotheses. It’s widely agreed that certain developmental issues are most likely to cause autism in children, but many different things could influence these developmental issues.

Right now, many doctors agree that ASD is more likely to develop when development is affected prenatally, and most of these changes occur during brain development when development is delayed or disrupted. Heredity is also a likely cause, which prompts many physicians to think that genes also play an important role.

A recent study conducted by a New York-based physician-researcher from the Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine is not investigating the cause of autism, however, but rather one factor that may help prevent ASD. That factor is breastfeeding, or rather an important protein gained through breastfeeding. Based on an analysis of prior published study results, researcher Dr. Gary Steinman suggests that depressed levels of a protein called insulin-like growth factor (IGF) could potentially serve as a biomarker that could anticipate the development of ASD.

Based on evidence gathered in more prior studies that have linked IGF with numerous growth and neural functions, Dr. Steinman believes that the protein provided through breastfeeding can repair any inborn deficiency of the growth factor in newborns.

"By assessing our own research, along with dozens of other relevant studies, there is a strong case to be made that IGF -- known to be deeply involved in the normal growth and development of babies' brain cells -- also serves a biomarker for autism," says Dr. Steinman.

To see if IGF really does serve as a biomarker for ASD, Steinman recommends that the umbilical cord blood is tested at birth since it contains a measurement of neonatal levels of IGF. These results should then be matched against future autism occurrences in the maturing child. If it’s found that low levels of IGF are consistent with the later appearance of ASD, then newborns should receive supplemental amounts of the protein as early as possible, either through breastfeeding or other relatively simple means.

If IGF does prove to be a biomarker for the development of ASD, Dr. Steinman hopes that doctors will be able to develop a simple biomarker blood test to assess protein levels and prevent the development of autism.

Source: Touro College Of Osteopathic Medicine (2013, November 6). Breastfeeding possible deterrent to autism. ScienceDaily.