Processed foods may hold key to rise in autism

Processed foods may hold key to rise in autism
Researchers at UCF have dentified the molecular changes that happen when neuro stem cells are exposed to high levels of an acid commonly found in processed foods. Credit: University of Central Florida

With the number of children diagnosed with autism on the rise, the need to find what causes the disorder becomes more urgent every day. UCF researchers are now a step closer to showing the link between the food pregnant women consume and the effects on a fetus' developing brain.

Drs. Saleh Naser, Latifa Abdelli and UCF undergraduate research assistant Aseela Samsam have identified the molecular changes that happen when neuro stem are exposed to high levels of an acid commonly found in processed foods. In a study published June 19 in Scientific Reports, a Nature journal, the UCF scientists discovered how high levels of Propionic Acid (PPA), used to increase the shelf life of packaged foods and inhibit mold in commercially processed cheese and bread, reduce the development of neurons in fetal brains.

Dr. Naser, who specializes in gastroenterology research at the College of Medicine's Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences, began the study after reports showed that autistic children often suffer from gastric issues such as irritable bowel syndrome. He wondered about a possible link between the gut and the brain and began examining how the microbiome—or gut bacteria—differed between people with and those who do not have the condition.

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

In the lab, the scientists found exposing 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 .

Excessive amounts of the acid also shorten and damage pathways that neurons use to communicate with the rest of the body. The combination of reduced neurons and damaged pathways impede the brain's ability to communicate, resulting in behaviors that are often found in children with autism, including repetitive behavior, mobility issues and inability to interact with others.

Previous studies have proposed links between autism and environmental and genetic factors, but Drs. Naser and Abdelli say their study is the first to discover the molecular link between elevated levels of PPA, proliferation of glial cells, disturbed neural circuitry and autism. The 18-month study was self-funded by UCF.

PPA occurs naturally in the gut and a mother's microbiome changes during pregnancy and can cause increases in the acid. But Drs. Naser and Abdelli said eating packaged foods containing the acid can further increase PPA in the woman's gut, which then crosses to the fetus.

More research needs to be done before drawing clinical conclusions. Next, the research team will attempt to validate its findings in mice models by seeing if a high PPA maternal diet causes autism in mice genetically predisposed to the condition. There is no cure for autism, which affects about 1 in 59 , but the scientists hope their findings will advance studies for ways to prevent the disorder.

"This research is only the first step towards better understanding of Autism Spectrum Disorder," the UCF scientists concluded. "But we have confidence we are on the right track to finally uncovering autism etiology."


Explore further

Scientists link genes to brain anatomy in autism

More information: Latifa S. Abdelli et al, Propionic Acid Induces Gliosis and Neuro-inflammation through Modulation of PTEN/AKT Pathway in Autism Spectrum Disorder, Scientific Reports (2019). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-019-45348-z
Journal information: Scientific Reports

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Jun 20, 2019
Why would they blame processed foods when it is a specific chemical that is suspect?

Jun 20, 2019
Perhaps it is found in most/all processed foods?

I expect some people will start avoiding this chemical even before the study is complete.

But let's say the study will eventually prove PPA causes autism. I'm curious as to whether a definitive known cause would destroy the vaccine conspiracy theorists or not. Logically, you'd think so, but the cynic in me says no.

Jun 20, 2019
Why would they blame processed foods when it is a specific chemical that is suspect?


Because:

Propionic Acid (PPA), used to increase the shelf life of packaged foods and inhibit mold in commercially processed cheese and bread


It's a food additive E280. Check out any of the processed foods in your fridge. I just picked up a microwave hamburger - E282: Calcium propanoate, the calcium salt of propanoic acid.

It's basically in everything.

Jun 20, 2019
It's called glyphosate.
https://billymeie...phosate/
And it causes cancer, miscarriages, autism, and more.
It also causes botulism in cattle.
Who knew? The people who made it knew for the past 20 years.

Jun 21, 2019
Glyphosate, adjuvants like polysorbate 80, aluminium hydroxide, formaldehyde and a cacophony of pesticide in our air, water, food.

Jun 21, 2019
It's a food additive E280. Check out any of the processed foods in your fridge. I just picked up a microwave hamburger - E282: Calcium propanoate, the calcium salt of propanoic acid.

It's basically in everything.

What if it's not put on the label? What if the food smells funny but it says it has no preservatives, flavourings and such? I suspect sometimes this kind of stuff is added at a different stage and then it is not put on the label.

"Clean" bread still holds quite well for days although it is sliced.

Jun 21, 2019
It's a food additive E280. Check out any of the processed foods in your fridge. I just picked up a microwave hamburger - E282: Calcium propanoate, the calcium salt of propanoic acid.

It's basically in everything
-So the answer is to remove it from processed foods, not vilify all processed foods. Again it's the chemical not the product. Blaming the product is the attempt at misdirection.

Jun 21, 2019
It's called glyphosate.
https://billymeie...phosate/
And it causes cancer, miscarriages, autism, and more.
It also causes botulism in cattle
Botulism is caused by it's own pathogen.
Who knew? The people who made it knew for the past 20 years.
-Youre failing to appreciate it's TRUE purpose...

"Reproductive toxicity in humans can show up in the form of increased tendency towards miscarriage, infertility, stillbirth, and birth defects. Studies, including some by industry, show that glyphosate and Roundup cause malformations"

-IOW, reducing the birthrate. Along with a long list of other chemical, biological and sociopolitical factors.

Reducing population size while improving quality is the number one mandate of the post world war world.

Jun 23, 2019
-So the answer is to remove it from processed foods, not vilify all processed foods.


The whole point of processed foods is to be full of preservatives, so these "half-made" or "ready-to-eat" foods would stay edible without being pickled or desiccated etc.

An earlier solution to the problem was removing water, which stops the molds from growing, but then your food is just dry, so they added glycerine to keep the bread soft, but that was so clearly artificial - like cooking with vaseline instead of crisco - so they went back to fungicides and other chemical preservatives.

Propanoic acid displaced earlier preservatives which were found to be toxic/harmful to people, and now PPA is found to be harmful to humans. It's just going to be replaced with some other chemical, that will also prove to be harmful to humans after a couple decades. It's better to just make your own sandwich.

Jun 23, 2019
Reducing population size while improving quality is the number one mandate of the post world war world.


Didn't quite work. The populations in the west are growing old and governments are trying to push the birth rate up instead of down to keep enough taxpayers in the system to pay for their own pensions - even if it means importing immigrants. More and more people are refusing to breed due to economic pressure and insecurity - poor quality of life and adverse social conditions - rather than because they can't put a bun in the oven.

Also, why would all these means apply to the western world where processed foods are most consumed, while the developing world eats whatever and experiences a population explosion that threatens to consume the world? If that's a planned strategy, it would have been made by an idiot.

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