Maternal Levels of Cytokines in Early Pregnancy and Risk of Autism Spectrum Disorders in Offspring

Front Public Health. 2022 May 31:10:917563. doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2022.917563. eCollection 2022.


Previous studies indicate a role of immune disturbances during early development in the etiology of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Any potential disturbances during fetal development are best addressed by prospective evaluation of maternal markers of inflammation. Previous studies have investigated maternal cytokines, a group of powerful effectors of the immune system, with inconsistent results. In this study, we aimed to clarify the relationship between maternal cytokines and ASD by evaluating levels of 17 cytokines in first trimester maternal serum samples, from 318 mothers to ASD-cases and 429 mothers to ASD-unaffected controls, nested within the register-based Stockholm Youth Cohort. Overall, we observed no consistent associations between levels of maternal cytokines and ASD. While we observed a number of individual associations, the patterns varied across the diagnostic sub-groups. Levels above the 90th percentile of IL-1β (OR = 2.31, 95% CI 1.16-4.60), IL-7 (OR = 2.28, 95% CI 1.20-4.33), IL-13 (OR = 2.42, 95% CI 1.29-4.55), and MCP-1 (OR = 2.09, 95% CI 1.03-4.24) were associated with increased odds of ASD with co-occurring intellectual disability (ID), whereas GMCSF (OR = 2.06, 95% CI 1.03-4.11) and TNF-α (OR = 2.31, 95% CI 1.18-4.50) were associated with increased odds of ASD with ADHD but none survived correction for multiple comparisons. Also, none of the measured maternal cytokines were associated with ASD without co-occurring ID or ADHD. Implementing a data-driven approach using machine learning (Random Forest's Variable Importance measurement), we found no evidence to suggest that adding these cytokines and other markers of maternal immunity, to register-based maternal factors (e.g., psychiatric history) improves prediction of ASD. In summary, we found no robust evidence of an association between maternal immune markers during early pregnancy and ASD.

Keywords: ADHD; autism; cytokines; intellectual disability; pregnancy.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder* / epidemiology
  • Biomarkers
  • Cohort Studies
  • Cytokines
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Intellectual Disability* / complications
  • Mothers
  • Pregnancy


  • Biomarkers
  • Cytokines