During pregnancy, women are advised to avoid certain kinds of food as it may affect the growth and development of the baby in the womb. Now a new study has found eating processed food while pregnant may increase the chances of your baby having autism.
Researchers from the University of Central Florida (UCF) found that cellular changes occur when neural stem cells are exposed to elevated levels of propionic acid, a chemical typically found in processed food used to extend shelf life and prevent mold from forming in packaged foods, bread, and cheeses. Scientists say high levels of PPA can reduce the development of neurons in fetal brains, according to Science Daily.
Dr. Saleh Naser, who specializes in gastroenterology research at the UCF College of Medicine, started the research after reports showed autistic children often suffer from gastric issues like chronic constipation and irritable bowel syndrome. According to Forbes, ongoing research suggests that the gut microbiome is important in brain development. Dr. Naser wondered about the possible link between the gut and brain and started examining the difference of gut bacteria in people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and people who did not have the condition.
Researchers found that exposure to excessive PPA can damage brain cells in various ways. First, the acid disrupts the natural balance between brain cells by reducing the number of neurons and over-producing glial cells. Glial cells help develop and protect neuro function, but too many glial cells can disturb connectivity between neurons. This can cause inflammation, which is a common finding in the brains of children with ASD.
In addition, high levels of PPA can also shorten and damage pathways that neurons use to communicate with the rest of the body. Reduced neurons, combined with damaged pathways, affect the brain’s ability to communicate, which can result in typical behavior often linked to children with ASD. This includes repetitive behavior, mobility issues, and inability to interact with others.
While previous studies have suggested the role of genetic factors and environmental influence in autism, this is the first study that relates the molecular link from elevated levels of PPA, overproduction of glial cells, disruption of neural pathways, and autism, according to the researchers. Their findings were published in June 2019 in the Scientific Reports journal.
It should be noted that PPA is naturally found in the gut, but if pregnant women consume processed food with PPA, changes in a mother’s microbiome may further increase the levels of the acid in the gut, which can then cross over to the baby in their womb.
Of course, more research is needed before drawing clinical conclusions. The next step for Dr. Naser and his colleagues will be to validate the findings using mice models and see if excessive PPA in a mother’s diet can cause ASD in mice who are genetically predisposed to the condition. Their hope is that their findings can lead to more advanced studies that will find a way to prevent the disorder in children.
“The research is only the first step towards [a] better understanding of Autism Spectrum Disorder,” the UCF researchers said in a statement. “But we have confidence we are on the right track to finally uncovering autism etiology.”