Tara Wenger, MD, PhD, a Pediatric Genetics fellow in the Center for Autism Research, was recently featured in a number of articles about an exciting new study of autism. The study examined whether trophoblast inclusions — microscopic, abnormal folds in the tissue of the placenta — could serve as a predictor of autism in children from families at high risk for autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
The researchers discovered that “the placentas from women whose fetuses are at elevated risk for autism are markedly different from control placentas.” This finding “has the possibility of identifying newborns at risk for ASD who might benefit from targeted early interventions aimed at preventing or ameliorating behavioral symptoms and optimizing developmental outcomes,” the researchers write.
“It would be really exciting to have a real biomarker and especially one that you can get at birth,” Dr. Wenger told the New York Times for their article on the study.
After receiving her MD/PhD from the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, Dr. Wenger joined Children’s Hospital in 2008 for a residency in Pediatrics and Medical Genetics.
She first became interested in ASD as an undergraduate, while working at clinic for children with autism. In graduate school she studied children with ASD who had been exposed to valproic acid — an anticonvulsant used often used to treat epilepsy — in utero.
Dr. Wenger’s current research is focused on identifying the underpinnings of ASD in environmental and genetic exposure syndromes. “By understanding the mechanisms for development of ASD in these well-defined cohorts, we hope to identify pathways that may be important in the development of idiopathic ASD and could be amenable to pharmacologic treatment,” Dr. Wenger has said.
The Biological Psychiatry study “provides additional evidence that many cases of autism are really starting to develop well before a child is born,” Dr. Wenger said in another article on WBUR Boston’s CommonHealth blog.
“A lot of people think of autism as something that happens after you’re born — because in toddlerhood is when you start to see the signs,” she noted. “But as you look at the brains, it really suggests that most of these cases are originating very early in pregnancy.”
To learn more about the exciting autism research being conducted at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, see the Center for Autism Research.