Autism spectrum disorders represent a variety of disorders in which neural development is altered, leading to impairment in social interaction and communication. In addition, spectrum disorders are typically characterized by a variety of restricted or repetitive behaviors. Within the spectrum are autism, Asperger syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified. Changes in screening as well as an increase in screening has seen a 600% increase in prevalence over the past two decades. While some of this may be a confounding effect from an increase in screening, it is likely that the incidence of autism is truly increasing.
With strong genetic as well as environmental factors, it is difficult to be certain of autism’s pathology within the brain. Changes have been noted in inflammatory markers as well as synapse formation, nerve transmission, and information processing. Of primary concern is a deficiency of brain-derived neurotrophic factor as well as an altered metabolism of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). PUFAs are fatty acids that contain more than one double bond in the backbone and are typically known as the “good fats”. These PUFAs include omega-3 fatty acids which have been shown to lower the risk of heart attacks. PUFAs have been shown to augment levels of BDNF in the brain as well as physically interact with BDNF. With a deficiency in levels of BDNF in the brains of individuals with autism, PUFAs may be necessary to support proper brain function.
Although there is still so much that is yet unknown about autism and its related spectrum disorders, there are certain things that can be done to support proper brain development and function. Of primary concern is prenatal care. Some studies have shown that maternal infections and inflammation may be implicated in altered gene expression leading to dysfunction of neuronal function and neurotransmitters as well as alteration of the metabolism of PUFAs. It is believed that this may cascade and lead to the development of autism. With this knowledge, it is imperative that mothers receive proper prenatal care. This includes a proper diet that is able to support fetal growth. Specifically, a diet rich in poly unsaturated fatty acids may provide the fetus with the necessary molecules for BDNF function. In addition, it is important that mothers take proper care of themselves during fetal development in order to avoid infections or causes of inflammation. Proper prenatal care not only supports proper brain development, but is also beneficial for the development of the fetus as a whole.
With so much yet unknown about autism and autism spectrum disorders it is difficult to pinpoint a specific solution to the problem. Treatment is usually case specific, focusing on a variety of behavioral interventions that are specific to individuals. There are some medical treatments that include improvement of the diet, vitamin and mineral supplements, and some pharmaceuticals that are proving to be very hopeful. The most promising of these drugs is Suramin which blocks purinergic receptors that have been shown to be implicated with autism. While there is some hope as far as treatments, I believe it is imperative we take the simple steps, including proper prenatal care, to hopefully lessen the prevalence of autism.