New research has found a link between eating processed foods while pregnant and the possible rise of autism

University of Central Florida (UCF) scientists examined the food that pregnant women eat and what happens to a baby’s developing brain when the child’s neural stem cells are exposed to high levels of an acid commonly found in processed foods.

They discovered that high levels of Propionic Acid (PPA), used to increase the shelf life of packaged foods and inhibit mould in commercially processed cheese and bread, reduce the development of neurons in foetal brains.

Dr Saleh Naser, who specialises 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 autism and those who do not have the condition.

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

Why people with autism often suffer from gut problems

How acid in processed foods affects a developing brain

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.
  • 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 behaviours that are often found in children with autism, including repetitive behaviour, mobility issues and inability to interact with others.

Watch what you eat while expecting

The team plan to do more research, but it seems clear enough – it’s best to avoid eating processed foods while pregnant.

According to the researchers, although PPA occurs naturally in the gut and a mother’s microbiome changes during pregnancy can cause increases in the acid, eating packaged foods can further increase PPA in a mother’s gut and affect the foetus.

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Source: University of Central Florida via