It is just a hypothesis. But breastfeeding may deter the development of autism later in life, according to a recent article published in the medical journal, Medical Hypotheses. The author of the article, Gary Steinman, MD, Ph.D., suggests further testing of umbilical cord blood for the presence of a certain compound, which may predict a newborn’s risk for developing autism. Breast milk contains a large amount of this protein.
Scientists refer to this protein as an insulin-like growth factor or IGF. Several previous studies link IGF with a number of growth and nervous system functions. IGF is deeply involved in the normal growth and development of a baby’s brain cells. Low levels of IGF may be associated with developmental disorders, including autism.
IGF stimulates the production of myelin, which serves as insulation around developing nerves. Myelin helps transmit brain signals that control physical functions, such as running and jumping, as well as mental functions like vision, thinking, and emotions. In developing brains, myelin helps nerve fibers develop pathways; this allows the brain to hone its function over time. Inadequate IGF levels cause low myelin production and poor insulation for nerve fibers.
Dr. Steinman, who has already performed extensive research on fertility and twinning, says that IGF delivered through breast milk compensates for any growth factor deficiencies in a newborn. If further research affirms Steinman’s research, breastfeeding could possibly become associated with a decreased risk for autism.
Dr. Steinman would like researchers to start testing umbilical cords for the presence of IGF and then monitor autism rates among test subjects. Scientists could compare data collected at birth with neurological studies when the children are between 18 and 36 months of age. If these studies show IGF is indeed associated with autism, then Steinman encourages medical professional to recommend breastfeeding as a deterrent to autism. Furthermore, infants with low levels of IGF could receive supplements to reduce the risk of developmental disorders later in life.
If proven correct, these studies could significantly reduce the number of children with autism. Currently, the Centers for Disease Control estimates an average of 1 in 110 children have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
- "Breastfeeding as a possible deterrent to autism -- a clinical perspective." EurekAlert. 6 Nov 2013. Web. Retrieved 18 Nov 2013.
- "How Many Children Have Autism?" Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 14 Aug 2012. Web. 18 Nov 2013.