Child eating 390.
(photo credit: Zach Riggins, The University of Alabama)
Mystery surrounds autism. Its theories of causes and treatments are
as unique and diverse as the people who have it. The same holds true for its
symptoms. Scientists and physicians are uncovering more about this disorder
every day; many of those studies and findings concentrate on diet.
Yasmin Neggers, a professor of human nutrition and hospitality management in The
University of Alabama College of Human Environmental Sciences whose main
research focus is nutrition during pregnancy, was inspired by a visiting
colleague to learn more about this disorder that affects the brain’s normal
development of social and communication skills.
The colleague, Dr.
Eun-Kyung Kim from Kangnung-Wonju National University in Korea, and Neggers
decided to look at blood levels of lipids and fatty acids in two groups of South
Korean children – one group of typically developing boys and another group of
boys with an autism diagnosis. These fatty acids, particularly omega-3 and
omega-6, are needed for normal development of the nervous system, including the
“Many studies have shown omega-3 fatty acids to be neuroprotective
because they decrease the risk of neurological problems,” Neggers
“We were surprised when we didn’t find studies that looked at
omega-3 levels in children with autism.” Omega-3 fatty acids, found in salmon
and many other foods, are known to be neuroprotective.
Even though there
were no major differences in what these children ate, those with autism had a
lower omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid ratio and lower levels of high density
lipoprotein, more commonly known as HDL. For both levels, it’s often believed,
the higher the better. HDL is commonly referred to as “good" cholesterol. High
levels of HDL seem to protect against heart attacks, while low levels increase
the risk of heart disease.
“It’s a very preliminary study, but we think
there is some kind of lipid metabolism disorder in children with autism,”
“It is plausible that low blood levels of HDL and omega-3
fatty acids observed in autistic children at an early age may be an indicator of
impaired fatty acid metabolism.
“What we need to do is follow these kids
until they become older and then see whether their lower amounts of good
cholesterol result in any health problems, such as a higher risk of
cardio-vascular disease. We don’t know.”
Neggers is not suggesting
parents change their children’s diets quite yet. More studies need to be
“We wouldn’t suggest starting to give omega-3 supplements to
autistic children yet,” Neggers advises, “although it wouldn’t hurt because it’s
good for you. But these findings suggest the need for further investigation. The
next step is to look at bigger sample sizes for a longer amount of time and with
children of different ethnicities.”
There is nothing, yet, to suggest
that increasing blood levels of HDL or omega-3 fatty acids will reduce the
symptoms of autism. In fact, the study doesn’t reveal what causes what – if
autism causes a lipid metabolism disorder or if the disorder causes
What’s important about these findings is what it could mean later
in life for the person with autism. Mystery still surrounds autism. Neggers
hopes this is one more clue to solve it.This article was first published at www.newswise.com