A new study claims processed foods may be why there is a huge surge in autism cases. Researchers from the University of Central Florida (UCF) say they are closer to understanding a link between the kind of foods pregnant women eat and how it impacts a fetus' brain development.
Experts say there is an urgent need to discover what is the cause of the disorder as more and more children have been diagnosed with autism in recent years.
Saleh Naser, who specializes in gastroenterology research at the College of Medicine's Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences, decided to investigate the potential cause of the disorder after it was discovered that autistic children suffer from gastric issues like irritable bowel syndrome. Naser was curious about the link between the gut and the brain. This led him to study how gut bacteria is different in those with autism compared to the general population.
"Studies have shown a higher level of PPA in stool samples from children with autism and the gut microbiome in autistic children is different. I wanted to know what the underlying cause was," Naser told a news portal.
High levels of Propionic Acid (PPA) is added to a packaged item to prolong its shelf life and prevent mould. It is commonly added to processed cheese and bread. For the study, Naser and his team conducted lab tests by exposing neural stem cells to very high levels of PPA in many ways. The team found the acid causes a disruption in brain cells by decreasing the number of neurons. It also causes the overproduction of glial cells. Even though glial cells help develop neuron function, as we well as protect it, too many cells like these can cause an issue with neurons. It also causes inflammation, which previous studies have found in the brains of children with autism.
The team found high levels of this acid decreased the development of neurons in a baby's brain while in the womb. Through the study, the team was able to identify the molecular changes that occur when neuro stem cells are exposed to extremely high levels of this acid that is found in most processed food products. High amounts of this acid were also found to damage pathways that neurons use to communicate with other areas of the body. All these factors put together have been discovered in those with autism, which causes challenges with mobility, repetitive behaviour, and makes it difficult to socialise with others.
"This research is only the first step towards better understanding of Autism Spectrum Disorder,"UCF scientists stated. Adding, "But we have confidence we are on the right track to finally uncovering autism etiology."
The study's findings were originally published in the journal Scientific Reports.