A study by the University of Central Florida (UCF) has explored the possibility of a link between the consumption of processed food by pregnant women and autism.
The research has moved a step closer to showing the link between the food that pregnant women consume and the effect on the developing brain of the foetus.
The study identified the molecular changes that occur when stem cells are exposed to high levels of Propionic Acid (PPA), which is commonly found in processed foods.
PPA is used to prolong the shelf life of processed and pre-packaged foods while preventing the growth of mould in food products such as bread and cheese.
However, it may also reduce the development of neurons in the foetus’ brains.
Dr Saleh Naser, Lead Researcher in the study and Specialist in Gastroenterology research at the College of Medicine’s Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences, said: “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.”
The researchers found that exposing neural stem cells to excessive amounts of PPA damages the brain cells in several ways.
An increased amount of PPA damages and shortens the pathways that neurons use to communicate with the body, and the combination of factors is similar to those that are found in children with autism.
The study was conducted by the UCF over an 18 month period, with the scientists noting that more research must be done before reaching any clinical conclusions.