Research pointing to risks associated, some specific to Autism, with early ultrasound scans. Yet another study, this one published this month by the University of Washington in Seattle. We’ve heard about this before… back in 2007 and again in 2014. It was brushed off as inconclusive and nothing for concern. But, apparently, not for a handful of researchers who thought it important enough to spend another 2 years with over 2,600 women.
As I drive to campus every day, I pass "Peek-a-Boo 4D Ultrasound" (fictitious name) in the outlot of a large mall. It looks adorable, with pink and blue graphics and clever advertising. Today, after reading this latest study, I wanted to learn more. The popularity of these ultrasound boutiques is driven by two things- 1. Wanting an early bonding experience with the baby and 2. Getting keepsake images to place in the baby album.
In a conversation I had with my child development class later in the day, I learned that nine of the eleven who were moms had received more than six ultrasound scans and more than eight Dopplers during their pregnancies. Some of these were done earlier than 8 weeks. Less than half were scanned for medical issues, but rather for viewing the fetus and listening for a fetal heartbeat.
My informal survey drove me to get more information on the subject, in light of this new study. I learned that the energy process of ultrasound is often used to accelerate bone healing, because it stimulates cell division and that some body cells are more sensitive to this than others… brain cells are among them.
In the first trimester, the neurons begin their trek up into their intended positions in the brain. This migration is a surprisingly awesome and well-choreographed feat. When ultrasound comes into the picture, it’s like a clumsy oaf stumbling through their pathways. The acoustic energy of ultrasound converts to heat energy, which can intensify by 75% on the fetal skull in as little as 30 seconds of exposure. The heat can stimulate premature cell division and send the neurons off their migratory paths. Instead of finding their way to the upper cortical layers of the brain, many fall out of line and end up in lower layers or in the white matter. A result can be issues with higher cognitive function, like facial recognition and joint attention, both of which are often a challenge for Autistic children.
This most recent study again did not find that ultrasound caused Autism. It did, however, clearly indicate that it may likely be a trigger for the disorder if the baby has certain genetic variations that make him susceptible. And, they found it could contribute to Autism severity. One of the researchers, Sara Webb, a mother of two, said given what she knows now, she would in no way have had an ultrasound scan in the first trimester, unless there was a definite medical necessity.
Beyond these implications, there are other disturbing facts to consider. Today’s ultrasound machines use sound waves with 8 times the intensity used before 1991. Furthermore, it is estimated that as many as 96% of providers are either untrained or do not understand the safety parameters of the equipment. Because these machines are getting smaller, cheaper, and more portable, they are available without regulation to anyone on the Internet. Several researchers stressed the need to regulate ultrasound the same as X-rays.
This brings me back to "Peek-a-Boo." On the website, I learned it was owned and operated by a mom of two, who was not a trained technician. A typical session lasts 30 minutes, but clients are promised a “favorable image,” which may take longer. Or, mom may come back for additional visits free of charge. Hey! What about the 30-second window mentioned by the researchers?
Isn’t this the question that every pregnant mother needs to ask… If there is no medical necessity for ultrasound exposure, shouldn’t the risks be considered before using this technology?
For me, the answer would be simple. Any procedure that has the potential to cause abnormal, premature brain cell division and causes neurons to drift from their intended migration path is not worth a keepsake image or video that can be taken with my phone in the delivery room. If it means I won’t know what color to paint the baby’s room until she arrives, so be it. I’d rather she has the best chance at being all she can be, than me having any of those other things before she’s born.
Mourad, P., Autism Research, September 1, 2016