From genetic studies to neurological research, this past week was rife with new autism-related studies shining lights on different elements of autism. Let’s dive right in.

First up, a University of Missouri study was recently released that seeks to better understand the relationship between stress during pregnancy and several conditions it has been linked with, including autism. The researchers observed a variant of a stress-sensitive gene and exposure to stress during pregnancy among two groups of mothers of children with autism. The researchers believe the finding could be a step toward helping identify women who have greater risks for having children with autism when exposed to stressors during a specific time window during pregnancy.

“Autism was thought to be largely a genetic disorder, but previous research has shown that environmental influences such as stress can play an important role in the development of the condition,” said David Beversdorf, M.D., senior author of the study. “We know that some mothers who experience significant levels of stress don’t have children with autism, but others do. To help understand why, we studied a gene that is known to affect stress and found a link between it and the development of autism with exposure to stress.” Though this in only an initial study and further research is needed, it does point the way towards the possibility of doctors being able to better identify at-risk mothers during pregnancy.

In another study looking at the proteins within pregnant women, researchers have found a possible connection between the protein cells that control communication between the immune system may be at an increased risk for having a child with autism combined with an intellectual disability. In addition, the research also argued that there might be a need for a different immune profile to be created for those with autism and an intellectual disability, separate from the profiles for autism or intellectual disabilities in themselves.

“Inflammation during the second trimester in the mothers of children with autism who also have intellectual disability was significantly greater than in mothers of children with autism without intellectual disability in our study,” said Judy Van de Water, who contributed to the study, chemokine profiles. This finding suggests an avenue that we will explore to potentially identify possible markers to separate sub-phenotypes in the autism population.”

Finally, in the ongoing quest to identify those genes that contribute to autism, scientists have found a similarity between the patterns of gene expression in those with autism and those with schizophrenia. Past studies have already established that there is likely a connection between the two, and study leader Dan Arking says this is further evidence of a possible connection. For example, those with autism and those with schizophrenia share a number of features such as language problems and an inability to empathize with others’ feelings. “And now I think we can show that they share overlap in gene expression,” Arking said.