Researchers looked at the effects of the rising levels in propionic acid (PPA), used to extend the shelf life of processed foods, on the fetal brain, during pregnancy. Lead scientists on the study were Saleh Naser and Latifa Abdelli. They identified molecular-level changes that neural stem cells go through when exposed to PPA. This particular acid is mostly used to inhibit the forming of mold in processed foods like bread and cheese.
The link between eating processed foods and autism
“Studies have shown a higher level of PPA in stool samples from children with autism and the gut microbiome in autistic children is different,” Naser says. “I wanted to know what the underlying cause was.” Naser's idea came from seeing reports that there are plenty of autistic children with diagnosed irritable bowel syndrome.
For the past few years, the gut microbiome has become a frequent target for researchers investigating anything from Parkinson's disease, obesity, and cancer. The human brain and the gut are definitely in a sort of important biological dialogue and the key to good overall health seems to be the gut microbiome.
You should also know that propionic acid occurs naturally in the mother's gut during pregnancy, but eating processed foods also treated with PPA leads to its levels rising. And it's transmitted further, to the fetus.
This study is a preliminary one, conducted over the course of 18 months. “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.”