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A Prospective Study of Environmental Exposures and Early Biomarkers in Autism Spectrum Disorder: Design, Protocols, and Preliminary Data from the MARBLES Study

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Until recently, environmental factors in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) were largely ignored. Over the last decade, altered risks from lifestyle, medical, chemical, and other factors have emerged through various study designs: whole population cohorts linked to diagnostic and/or exposure-related databases, large case-control studies, and smaller cohorts of children at elevated risk for ASD.


This study aimed to introduce the MARBLES (Markers of Autism Risk in Babies-Learning Early Signs) prospective study and its goals, motivate the enhanced-risk cohort design, describe protocols and main exposures of interest, and present initial descriptive results for the study population.


Families having one or more previous child with ASD were contacted before or during a pregnancy, and once the woman became pregnant, were invited to enroll. Data and biological samples were collected throughout pregnancy, at birth, and until the child's third birthday. Neurodevelopment was assessed longitudinally. The study began enrolling in 2006 and is ongoing.


As of 30 June 2018, 463 pregnant mothers have enrolled. Most mothers ([Formula: see text]) were thirty years of age or over, including 7.9% who are fourty years of age or over. The sample includes 22% Hispanic and another 25% nonHispanic Black, Asian, or multiracial participants; 24% were born outside the United States. Retention is high: 84% of participants whose pregnancies did not end in miscarriage completed the study or are still currently active. Among children evaluated at 36 months of age, 24% met criteria for ASD, and another 25% were assessed as nonASD nontypical development.


Few environmental studies of ASD prospectively obtain early-life exposure measurements. The MARBLES study fills this gap with extensive data and specimen collection beginning in pregnancy and has achieved excellent retention in an ethnically diverse study population. The 24% familial recurrence risk is consistent with recent reported risks observed in large samples of siblings of children diagnosed with ASD.

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