July 18, 2018
Expectant mothers may be able to prevent their child from developing an autism spectrum disorder simply by changing their diet or taking custom probiotics, new research suggests.
During pregnancy, a mother's microbiome – the collection of microorganisms that naturally live inside humans – is a key contributor in determining susceptibility to ASD, according to a new study from the University of Virginia School of Medicine.
Unhealthy microbiomes inside the expectant mother can increase the likelihood that her child develops a neurodevelopmental disorder, the study found.
But researchers say that risk probably can be lowered by altering the mother's diet, supplementing probiotics or conducting a fecal transplant. Those approaches each restore a healthy equilibrium among the microorganisms that reside within the gut.
Researchers led by John Lukens, of UVA's neuroscience department, found they could halt the development of autism-like neurodevelopmental disorders in lab mice by blocking an inflammatory molecule produced by the immune system.
That process may be more complex in humans, given the risk of side effects.
Medical professionals shy away from manipulating the immune system during pregnancy, because a complex balance of immune regulation is necessary to keep the embryo healthy, Lukens said. Blocking an inflammatory molecule could make the woman more susceptible to various infections and have ripple effects on the child's development.
Lukens said the "next big step" is to identify microbiome features in pregnant women that correlate with autism risk.
"I think the really important thing is to figure out what kind of things can be used to modulate the microbiome in the mother as effectively and safely as we can," Lukens said.
Though the study's findings link the immune system with neurodevelopmental disorders, Lukens stressed that it does not suggest vaccines contribute in any way to autism development.
"There's a definite link between the immune response and the developing brain," Lukens said. "It just doesn't have anything to do with vaccines. It's much, much earlier."
The findings were published in the Journal of Immunology.