No link between IVF and autism

Dear Professor Winston

I would like to know if there is any research linking frozen embryo IVF (ICSI) and autism. I had one cycle of donor egg IVF which produced 4 embryos. 2 were used and produced my daughter who is not autistic. The remaining 2 were frozen. When I used them only 1 survived but implanted and produced my lovely son who seemed fine until he reached around 3 when he became obviously different and was diagnosed as autistic. There is no known autism in the family and a genetic test showed nothing recently. Could it be the frozen element? I would like to know if there is a link or whether it’s just luck if a child is autistic. I also have a natural child non IVF with the same partner who is not autistic. Best regards. A

Dear A,

There is no known link between IVF and autism, nor with embryo freezing and autism. Certainly the incidence of autism does not seem to be higher in women who have had frozen embryo transfers and there are now extended data because so many babies have been born. So the widely held view is that embryo freezing is not dangerous and certainly there is no link that has been established between freezing embryos and any form of ill health subsequently.

My own view is that we need to keep good records of all forms of IVF intervention. This is because altering the environment of an early embryo from what it would naturally experience in the womb may have long term effects on some children born some time after any of these interventions. This is a relatively new field of study called epigenetics. An epigenetic effect does not alter the basic printed structure of a gene but may alter the way the DNA functions possibly in later life. This idea has only recently begun to emerge as a possible issue in IVF. If it occurs at all after IVF procedures it is rare and at the present time there appears to be no link with autism and freezing.

Two recent studies are worth quoting. One, in 2013, by Dr Conti and colleagues in Italy ‘Are children born after assisted reproductive technology at increased risk of autism spectrum disorders’ published last year looked at 9,200 babies and found no link. Another fairly recent study published from King’s College London by Dr Sandin and colleagues, looked worldwide at many thousands of babies. Their data suggested that there was no link between embryo freezing and autism, but there might be a very tiny autism risk with ICSI when sperm are directly injected into the egg. More follow ups are needed and at the present time there is no really clear evidence for certain.

I am sorry I cannot give you any more definite information but I hope this helps.

Best wishes
Robert Winston