Lead researcher Kyriaki Kosidou, of the Department of Public Health Sciences at Karolinska Institute in Sweden, and colleagues published their findings in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.
Autism - a developmental disability characterized by social, communication and behavioural problems - currently affects around 1 in 68 children in the US, and although we have no data of its incidence in Nigeria, it is not an unusual case here.
Androgen production is increased among women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) - a condition that affects the functioning of the ovaries. With this in mind, Kosidou and colleagues set out to investigate whether a PCOS diagnosis during pregnancy may influence autism development among offspring.
They found that compared with children born to mothers without PCOS, those born to mothers diagnosed with the condition during pregnancy were found to be at 59% greater risk of autism development.
The risk of autism was even higher for children born to mothers who had PCOS and were obese; such women tend to have significantly high androgen levels, according to the team.
While autism is much more common among boys than girls, the team says they identified no sex differences in autism risk among children born to mothers with PCOS.
The researchers were unable to identify the exact reasons for their findings, but they hypothesize that the association between maternal PCOS and increased autism risk may be driven by increased androgen levels.
The researchers say further studies are needed to replicate their findings and to determine the underlying mechanisms.
Until then, senior study researcher Renee Gardner, also of the Department of Public Health Sciences at Karolinska, says it is too early to make clinical recommendations for pregnant women with PCOS, "though increased awareness of this relationship might facilitate earlier detection of ASD in children whose mothers have been diagnosed with PCOS."