The number of children being diagnosed with autism has risen over the past decade, and scientists are still not close to finding out the cause of the disorder. However, researchers from UCF may have figured out the link between foods consumed by pregnant women and the effect it can have on the developing brain of the fetus.
The research team
Drs. Saleh Naser, Latifa Abdelli and UCF undergraduate research assistant Aseela Samsam have managed to work out the molecular sequencing changes that occur when pregnant women consume high levels of the acid found in processed food. The changes happen at the level of neurological stem cells.
The results of the study were published in the June 19 issue of Scientific Reports. It discovered that increased levels of Propionic acid reduce the growth of neurons in fetal brains. It is worth noting that the acid is used by processed food manufacturers to increase the shelf life of their products and inhibit the growth of mold.
Dr. Naser, who is a specialist in gastroenterological research, started this study when she discovered that autistic children tend to have increased incidence of gastric issues, including irritable bowel syndrome. He began examining the microflora of the gut in autistic children and discovered that it is quite different from people who did not have the disorder.
How it affects the brain
He also found that propionic acid, which naturally occurs in the gut, can increase when processed food is consumed. In a pregnant mother, the levels can rise high enough to cross to the fetus.
An excessive amount of this acid can damage the pathways that are used by neural cells to communicate with the rest of the body. They also result in an increased number of glial cells, which further disturbs the connections between neurons.
Therefore there is a molecular link between elevated levels of the acid, and disturbed neural circuitry which can lead to autism. However, more clinical trials need to be conducted before drawing any conclusions.