Could there be a link between processed foods and autism?

UCF scientists say it's possible

By Adrienne Cutway - Web Editor
Paule Joseph, Shavonne Pocock/NIH via AP

This undated photo provided by the National Institutes of Health in June 2019 shows an "ultra-processed" lunch including brand name macaroni and cheese, chicken tenders, canned green beans and diet lemonade. (Paule Joseph, Shavonne Pocock/NIH via AP)

ORLANDO, Fla. - A recent study conducted at the University of Central Florida could be key to identifying a contributing factor to the development of autism in children.

Dr. Saleh Naser, Dr. Latifa Abdelli and UCF undergraduate research assistant Aseela Samsam studied how high levels of acid commonly found in processed foods affects neuro stem cells and found that it can reduce the development of neurons in fetal brains.

When propionic acid, which is used to extend the shelf life of processed foods and to prevent mold from forming in processed cheese and bread, appears in high levels in a woman's gut, it can then be transferred to the fetus.

"In the lab, the scientists found exposing neural stem cells to excessive PPA damages brain cells in several ways. First, the acid disrupts the natural balance between brain cells by reducing the number of neurons and over-producing glial cells. While glial cells help develop and protect neuron function, too many glia cells disturb connectivity between neurons. They also cause inflammation, which has been noted in the brains of autistic children," UCF officials said in a news release.

Shortened and damaged neuron pathways is also a noted side effect of excessive levels of PPA. That leads to repetitive behavior, mobility limitations and an inhibited ability to interact with others -- all common traits of children who have autism.

The study began because Naser, who specializes in gastroenterology research at the College of Medicine’s Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences, noticed that many children with autism also suffer from gastric issues, so she wanted to compare the gut bacteria of people who have autism with those who do not.

“Studies have shown a higher level of PPA in stool samples from children with autism and the gut microbiome in autistic children is different,” Naser said in a news release. “I wanted to know what the underlying cause was.” 

The 18-month, first-of-its-kind study is just the beginning of the research. The team plans to study whether mice born to mothers with a high PPA diet experience autism traits.

“This research is only the first step towards better understanding of autism spectrum disorder,” the UCF researchers said. “But we have confidence we are on the right track to finally uncovering autism etiology.” 

To read the study in its entirety, click here.

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