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Research on ultrasounds is murky

John Rosemond, Tribune News Service on

Correlation does not prove causation, drummed my grad school statistics professor. For example, a rise in the rate of American children who regularly consume lox and a concurrent rise in Type 2 diabetes among American children does not, in and of itself, prove lox consumption increases the risk of diabetes. Proving the contention would require a control group. Nonetheless, a correlation hints at the possibility of cause-and-effect and is grounds for further study.

The lox-diabetes correlation is fanciful, but the following is not: Since the early 1990s, there has been a dramatic increase in ultrasounds per pregnancy (as well as a significant increase in ultrasound wave intensity), and a parallel increase in autism. The relationship has been the subject of several studies, none of which have settled the obvious question.

The lack of a conclusion stems largely from the fact that no body of research has unequivocally established autism’s cause. That, in turn, is further complicated by how the diagnosis, rather than being determined empirically (e.g. a brain scan), is based on subjective assessment of behavior. Finally, the parameters of psychological diagnoses tend to expand over time, capturing ever-increasing numbers of individuals.

An answer to the ultrasound-autism question is further muddied by scientists who seem to have a “that’s my answer and I’m sticking to it” conviction concerning the harmlessness and benefits of ultrasound. Studies that have concluded an ultrasound-autism link, however small, have consistently been followed by vehement denunciations of the data, methodology and analysis.


Dr. Marvin Ziskin, a professor of radiology and medical physics at Temple University's School of Medicine, beseeched in 2018: “Please don’t cause any undo fear in the minds of pregnant women.” Ziskin went on to say the equivocal study in question “should give expectant mothers confidence that ultrasound will not cause autism spectrum disorder or delayed development.” Given the inconclusive state of the existing research plus the strong ultrasound-autism correlation, the use of the definitive “will not” seems warranted.

Most moms, I find, are requesting or accepting ultrasounds for three reasons (in no particular order): first, to determine gender; second, to make sure the fetus has 10 fingers and 10 toes, so to speak; third, just to “take a look” at their babies. Respectively, gender and many genetic issues can be determined with amniocentesis, which involves minimal risk, and/or a simple and reliable blood test, and the potential risks involved with ultrasound mitigate against requesting the procedure out of curiosity. In short, advances in medical technology over the past 50 years have rendered ultrasounds largely unnecessary.

I know that in certain facets of mom culture, ultrasounds are the “thing” to do (thus, “gender reveal” parties), but do the risks justify bombarding a fetus with high intensity sound waves that several researchers have said might interfere with the proper migration of cells within the developing brain? I know my answer, and I’m sticking to it — at least until further research is done.

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