New Studies on Causes of Autism: Infection During Pregnancy, Mum’s Gut Bacteria

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Your baby is at higher risk of developing autism if you suffered a serious infection during pregnancy, and if certain strains of bacteria are present in your gut, two new studies have found.

Scientists from MIT and University of Massachusetts Medical School have found that a specific kind of bacteria in the mother’s gut triggers the immune system, producing inflammatory cells that cause irregularities in the developing fetus’ brain. Through their experiments and observations of mice, researchers found that the offspring later showed autistic-like behaviours.

Researchers were able to identify what part of the fetal brain is impacted by maternal immune activation (MIA), triggered when pregnant women fight extreme infections. Those effects were linked to a specific type of immune cell – Th17, and an associated molecule called IL-17.

“This data strongly suggests that perhaps certain mothers who happen to carry these types of Th17 cell-inducing bacteria in their gut may be susceptible to this inflammation-induced condition,” study coauthor Jun Huh told MIT news.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a lifelong, developmental disability. It is characterised by challenges in social skills, repetitive behaviour, and speech and non-verbal communication. The exact cause of autism is currently unknown. It is believed the complex condition may occur due to genetic predisposition and environmental or unknown factors.

Good news for treatment of autism?

The latest findings give new hope to autism treatment. In theory, restoring a healthy gut flora either through antibiotics, diet, pro and pre-biotic supplements or fecal transplant are promising. Our wonderful digestion system contains good and bad bacteria – the gut flora. A healthy gut flora helps with the digestion and absorption of nutrients, and to neutralise toxins.

This isn’t the first time that gut health is linked to autism. For years, scientists have known that autistic children have abnormal gut bacteria, which affect the brain-gut communication. We’re also getting a clearer picture of the connection between obesity, gut flora and autism. A paper published last year found that obese mums who had a different gut flora are most likely to have children who develop autism.


By Evangeline Majawat

Evangeline Majawat is a former reporter and public relations executive. She left Malaysia to put down roots in the Isle of Skye in the Scottish Highlands. Nowadays she teaches yoga and has her hands full with her little boy.

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