A mother’s gut health holds the key to autism-related disorders. In a recent study, it was found that the risk of developing autism-spectrum disorders is determined by the mother’s microbiome or collection of microorganisms that naturally live inside women during pregnancy.
It raises the possibility that preventing forms of autism could be as simple as an expectant mom modifying her diet or taking custom probiotics. Further, researchers were able to use their discovery to prevent the development of autism-like neuro-developmental disorders in lab mice. They found that it halt the development of such disorders by blocking a particular inflammatory molecule produced by the immune system.
They cautioned that this approach would be much more complex because of the risk of side effects. “The microbiome is really important to the calibration of how the offspring’s immune system is going to respond to an infection or injury or stress,” said lead researcher John Lukens. But an unhealthy microbiome in the mother can create problems and make the unborn baby vulnerable to neuro-developmental disorders.
But the good thing is that the microbiome can be modified easily, either through diet, probiotic supplements or faecal transplant. All of these approaches seek to restore a healthy equilibrium among the different microorganisms that live in the gut. “In terms of translating our work to humans, I think the next big step would be to identify features of the microbiome in pregnant mothers that correlate with autism risk,” Lukens said.
Blocking IL-17a also might offer a way to prevent autism, but Lukens said that path carries much more risk. “If you think about pregnancy, the body is basically accepting foreign tissue, which is a baby,” he said.
He stressed on how the molecule has an important purpose in stopping infections, especially fungal infections. Blocking it, he said, could make you susceptible to all kinds of infections. And doing so during pregnancy could have complex ripple effects on a child’s development that scientists would need to sort out.
While Lukens’ work links the immune system with neurodevelopmental disorders, he emphasised that this in no way suggests that vaccines are contributing to the development of autism.
The study appeared in the Journal of Immunology.