This past summer, I came across an article connecting maternal diabetes to autism in the offspring. My Mom was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes on December 31, 2000 at the age of 26. Type 1 Diabetes, previously known as juvenile diabetes, runs on my moms side of the family so to be diagnosed at the age of 26 is rare. The first thing I asked myself was, is there a connection between these two things? So, being the curious nerd I am, I wanted to do some more research to find out if this is the case.
There is a certain gene in our bodies. The GLO1 gene. Or in technical terms, glyoxalase one. Extensive research has shown that in diabetic individuals, the expression, or the functioning, of the GLO1 gene is reduced, meaning the GLO1 gene cannot properly function in people with diabetes. This could potentially be due to a genetic mutation in the DNA of diabetic individuals. Because the GLO1 gene has reduced expression, the bodies of diabetic individuals cannot follow through with the responsibilities that the GLO1 gene encodes for. We have a toxic compound in our body called methylglyoxal, which can aid in tissue degradation. The GLO1 gene is supposed to detoxify this harmful compound, or simply break it down, but if the GLO1 gene can’t function normally then there will be high levels of methylglyoxal in the body. With high levels of methylglyoxal in diabetic individuals, oxidative stress (an imbalance of free radicals in the body) and mitochondrial dysfunction (connected to dysfunction in other organ systems like the nervous system) occur, two things that are also featured in autism spectrum disorder (Maher, 2012). Methylglyoxal is also a precursor of AGES, or advanced glycation end products. According to the article “Weak association of glyoxalase 1 variants with autism spectrum disorder”, “Past studies identified increased levels of advanced glycation end products (AGE) in the brain samples of ASD patients” (Kovač et. al.). One study in Molecular Autism gathered thirty-eight autistic children and thirty-one age-matched controls. The results concluded that autistic children had increased amounts of AGEs and increased oxidation damage markers (oxidative stress).
To add on, mutations of the GLO1 gene are associated with neurological disorder development (Yang et.al, 2016). Neural precursor cells, or NPCs, are cells of the central nervous system that are able to generate types of cells in the brain. If GLO1 expression is decreased in NPCs, then premature neurogenesis may occur. This is critical since early neurological events (premature neurogenesis) can be a potential source of ASD development.
So, to wrap up all of these connections I have made, there is significant evidence to show that diabetes and autism are connected. If my Mom has a mutation in her GLO1 gene in her DNA, she may have high levels of methylglyoxal in her body, therefore having high levels of AGEs as well. Studies have shown that autistic children have high levels of AGEs in their body too. Lastly, a mutation in my Mom’s GLO1 gene could potentially cause development of neurological disorders that could have been passed down to my brother. She could have passed down her genetic mutation to my brother, which may have caused early neurological events to occur, potentially leading to development of his autism.
Header photo obtained from: How stress can change your DNA – Science in the news (Harvard University)