Aug. 1 (UPI) -- If a woman has polycystic ovary syndrome, it's more likely her child will be autistic, according to new research.
Researchers at Cambridge University's Autism Research Center studied 8,588 women in Britain with PCOS and their first-born children, comparing them to 41,127 women without PCOS from 1990 to 2014. Their findings were published Wednesday in the journal Translational Psychiatry.
PCOS, which is caused by elevated levels of the hormone testosterone in fluid-filled sacs -- called follicles -- in the ovaries. Symptoms include onset of puberty, irregular menstrual cycles and excess bodily hair. It affects up to 20 percent of reproductive-age women worldwide, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Autism, which develops in childhood and continues through adulthood, is a neurological and developmental disorder. The U.S. Centers for Disease and Prevention in April raised the prevalence of autism to 1 in 59 children in tracking of 11 communities across the country.
The researchers found that women with PCOS had a 2.3 percent chance of having an autistic child, compared to the 1.7 percent chance for mothers without PCOS. They took into account other factors, including maternal mental health problems or complications during pregnancy.
"We need to think about the practical steps we can put in place to support women with PCOS as they go through their pregnancies," co-research supervisor Carrie Allison said in a press release. "The likelihood is statistically significant but nevertheless still small, in that most women with PCOS won't have a child with autism, but we want to be transparent with this new information."
In a 2015 published study, the research team found that autistic children have elevated levels of sex steroid hormones, including testosterone, before they are born. Because the baby's body is "masculinized," it is one possible explanation why autism is diagnosed more often in boys.
But the researchers wanted to know where these elevated hormones were coming from.
They theorized that if a woman had higher levels of testosterone than usual, some of the hormone might cross the placenta during pregnancy. This would change the baby's brain development.
Indeed they found a greater chance of autism for women with PCOS.
Their findings were replicated in 2016 in a Swedish study,
"This new research is helping us understand the effects of testosterone on the developing fetal brain, and on the child's later behavior and mind," Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Center, said. "These hormonal effects are not necessarily independent of genetic factors, as a mother or her baby may have higher levels of the hormone for genetic reasons, and testosterone can affect how genes function."
Specifically, this research helps better understand autism, according to the researchers.
"Autism can have a significant impact on a person's wellbeing, and on their parents, and many autistic people have significant health, social care and educational special needs," study participant Dr. Rupert Payne from the University of Bristol Center for Academic Primary Care. "This is an important step in trying to understand what causes autism."
Earlier this year, researchers at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research found PCOS may be caused by a fetus being overexposed to a hormone known as anti-Mullerian, or AMH.