Mice study suggests link between obesity, autism

Christine Jasoni
Christine Jasoni
Babies born to obese mothers may have increased risk of developing autism, a University of Otago associate professor says.

A team of researchers recently released a paper in which they examined the hippocampus, part of the brain, in mice born to mothers put on high-fat diets.

Associate Prof Christine Jasoni, of the university's Brain Health Research Centre and Centre for Neuroendocrinology, said they found faults in the way cells interacted with oxytocin, "the love hormone''.

"We found ... receptors for ... for oxytocin were changed.''

Oxytocin is strongly linked with social development in humans.

"We knew already that mice, if the mothers are made obese during pregnancy, can have social behavioural disorders which are very similar to what we see in humans.''

The team was seeking more funding in a bid to expand the research, Prof Jasoni said.

"Right now, we need to understand more about what's going on and if the changes we have found are actually causing the changes in social behaviour that are characteristic of autism spectrum disorders.''

Previous public health studies indicated obesity during pregnancy was associated with an elevated risk for autism spectrum disorders as well as other neuropsychiatric disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, Prof Jasoni said.

The study was a "world first'' in discovering evidence as to how that happened in the brain.

"There's a lot more autism than there has ever been and there's lot more obesity and a lot more diabetes than there has ever been.''

The findings were not about "fat shaming'', she said.

"It's not to say this will happen if you are obese, but that you're at higher risk.

"There's a lot of public health data saying you want to be as healthy as you can during you can during your pregnancy. It also has a huge impact on the mother herself.''

Genetics also played a large role in the development of behavioural conditions.

There were still many unknowns in this area, including the importance of ethnic differences and social factors.

"Also, the contribution that the dad has is virtually unknown.''

The paper was recently published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences.



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