A new British study has found that eating fish during pregnancy is not linked to autism or autistic traits in children, despite fears that exposure to mercury, which can be found in fish, could be responsible for the condition.
Carried out by researchers at the University of Bristol, the study looked at whether prenatal exposure to mercury in the first half of pregnancy is associated with the risk of autism or extreme levels of autistic traits.
Mercury has been thought to be a major cause of autism in the past, in particular, through the use of vaccinations that contain thiomersal, a source of mercury. The new research is the largest longitudinal study to date to have tested the hypothesis and the only one to have looked at exposure in early pregnancy.
For the study, the team gathered data from nearly 4,500 women who took part in the British study, Children of the 90s.
The researchers looked at blood samples, the women’s reported fish consumption, and information on autism and autistic traits, and found that there were no links between levels of mercury in the mothers and autism or autistic traits in their children.
“Our findings further endorse the safety of eating fish during pregnancy,” said lead author and founder of the Children of the 90s study Professor Jean Golding.
“Importantly, we’ve found no evidence at all to support claims that mercury is involved in the development of autism or autistic traits. This adds to a body of work that endorses the eating of fish during pregnancy for a good nutritional start to life with at least two fish meals a week.”
Co-author Dr Caroline Taylor added: “All species of fish contain traces of mercury, which can harm brain development, but we’ve found that the health benefits of fish, probably from nutrients such as vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, selenium and iodine, outweigh the risks from mercury.”
Britain’s National Autistic Society’s Centre for Autism director Carol Povey also commented on the findings, saying: “At The National Autistic Society, we welcome all research which furthers our understanding of autism.
“This is a robust study which confirms what previous research has found – it is a myth that high mercury levels in pregnant mothers cause autism.
“Although the exact causes of autism are still not fully understood, research to date has shown it involves many complex and interacting factors, including genetics, the environment and the development of the brain.
“While it is important to understand the causes of autism, we believe more research should be focused on what helps autistic people and their families, so that all autistic people can have a good quality of life and get the support and understanding they need.”
The results can be found published online in the journal Molecular Autism. – AFP Relaxnews