Skip navigation

Calls to Action

Ultrasound and Autism - a possible link?

John Elder Robison, a member of the Autism Speaks Scientific Advisory and Scientific Treatment Board, author, and advocate will be on tour promoting the softcover version of his acclaimed book Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian with Practical Advice for Aspergians, Misfits, Families & Teachers

This blog was originally posted here.

Could the increased use of ultrasound during pregnancy be implicated in autism?

That’s a question I discussed yesterday with University of Louisville researcher Manny Casanova.
A few stories have raised this question in recent years, but none have elaborated on the possible process, as he did for me yesterday.   Here’s what he said:
Ultrasonic energy is known to affect cellular membranes and cell growth.  In fact, ultrasound is used as a therapy to accelerate bone growth following certain traumatic injuries.  In stem cell research, ultrasound has been shown to accelerate development of cells.  Knowing that stems cells are developing into neurons early in the fetal development, it’s quite possible that addition of ultrasound energy might shift that balance.  
Those were questions that I’d not heard before, when it came to ultrasound.  
When I got back to my hotel room, I discovered a number of scientific papers supporting each of his points, but none really put the ideas together in the context of autism. I found that fascinating, and somewhat disturbing.
What I had heard were these questions:
Heating and vibration might also affect a fetus.  Ultrasound will heat water, and the operation of ultrasonic cleaning systems is familiar to many of us.  Either of those processes might affect fetal development adversely too.
Like many people, I took for granted the idea that whomever approved ultrasound for clinical use made sure the power levels were low enough that the developing baby wasn’t cooked by its operation, or disintegrated like dirt on jewelry in the cleaning tank.
Not so fast, Manny cautioned me . . .
When ultrasound was developed, it was first used late in pregnancy, when all these risk factors are minimized.  It was also used by trained staff and the machines, being new, were likely well calibrated.  Most moms did not get ultrasound at all, and those who did typically received one or two.
The situation today is totally different.  Many doctors do ultrasound much earlier in an effort to spot other problems, like Down’s syndrome.  It’s common for moms to get three, four, or more ultrasounds done.  Finally and most disturbing, many states have “ultrasound boutiques” in malls where moms can get ultrasounds as art; for the new baby scrapbook. 
When the goal is a pretty picture, power levels may be turned up unwittingly.  Safety is assumed by operators who are not always medical people, and who may have little knowledge of the underlying processes.
So we have the confluence of more ultrasounds, done earlier, and possibly with poorly calibrated equipment and inadequately trained people.  I always associated ultrasound with professional staff in a hospital, but to hear Manny, it can be a lot more like a tattoo parlor experience. 
In fact, several states have no regulation at all over the use of ultrasound imaging equipment.  Anyone can buy it and make pretty pictures of your innards, perhaps cooking or altering you in the process.  In the hands of the wrong operator, it's like taking your developing baby and stepping into the microwave oven.  That's something none of you would do, yet the mall ultrasound parlors reportedly do a brisk business.  
Ultrasound Zeke has a wall full of beautiful fetal art, but it may have come at a high cost.  
I hesitate to say that’s a frightening prospect, but it’s certainly one I’d study more carefully.  If I were pregnant today, I’d be thinking hard if my doctor advised ultrasound early on, and I’d be reluctant to do it very often.
An energy process that makes broken femurs heal faster is not the sort of thing you want to fire into the brain of a developing fetus.  His brain is developing fast enough, all on its own.  We don’t need to amp up the rate of neuron development.

Remember . . . outside of evolution and the natural appearance of autistic people throughout history, we may never find a single pathway into autism.  There may be a hundred other causative factors.  I'm not suggesting this is THE CAUSE and neither is Manny.  This may or may not be involved . . . I simply suggest it's worth exploring further.

This is the second interesting question from IMFAR 2012.  What are your thoughts?
John Elder Robison
Writing from IMFAR 2012
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.