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Too Much of This Acid Could Affect Neuronic Development During Pregnancy

Propionic acid is found both in the body and in food. These researchers say high levels of it during pregnancy could lead to the baby having autism spectrum disorder.

September 20, 2019

Diet is extremely important during pregnancy because what you put into your body is, by extension, being put into your baby’s body as well. But, sometimes, it can be difficult to determine what, exactly, is in the food that you are eating, especially due to the many chemicals present in modern-day food. 

Researchers from the University of Central Florida recently determined that high levels of propionic acid—a common preservative found in foods—could impact the formation of neurons in a fetus’s brain, leading to autism spectrum disorder (ASD). 

Continue reading for more information concerning:

  • Propionic acid in the body and food
  • ASD and neuronic development
  • The study and its findings

About Propionic Acid

Propionic acid (PPA) is a type of short-chain fatty acid (SCFA) that is used by the body to metabolize undigested food in the colon. Additionally, PPA works to lower the amount of fatty acids in the liver and plasma, helps the immune system, and can reduce insulin-sensitivity. 

In food, PPA is used to extend shelf-life and can be found in cheeses, baked goods, bread, and packaged goods. There are no limits when it comes to the use of PPA in food production because the US Environmental Protection Agency has deemed it safe for consumption. 

Cheeses in grocery store
In addition to making food last longer, PPA is also used as an additive for artificial fruit flavoring. Basically, it’s more likely than not that what you’re eating has some amount of PPA in it. 

However, an excessive level of PPA in the body can be harmful or even toxic. The accumulation of too much PPA in the blood can cause seizures, movement disorders, gastrointestinal issues, and overall delays in development. 

ASD and Neuronic Development

Though ASD affects one in 59 children, researchers are still uncertain what causes it. However, studies have found that the brain of a person with ASD is different than that of someone who is neurotypical.

Chart depicting neuronic development of fetus
Neurons begin to form during the first 10 weeks of pregnancy, and the brain continues to develop throughout the remainder of the pregnancy. Image courtesy of Duke University

It has also been suggested that ASD coincides with a higher amount of gray matter, also called neuronal matter, in the brain. Additionally, these neurons might be more complex than those found in a neurotypical brain and have higher rates of replication.

These differences indicate atypical early-brain development, identifiable by symptoms of ASD later on. 

The Study: PPA and ASD

Researchers from the University of Central Florida were intrigued by the higher levels of PPA found in the stool samples from children ASD. Because ASD has also been linked with gastric issues such as irritable bowel syndrome, the researchers decided to investigate a possible relationship between the gut and the brain. 

When the researchers exposed neural stem cells to potent amounts of PPA, they found molecular changes in the cells, including fewer neurons, shortened communication pathways, and inflammation. 

Computer-generated image of neural pathways in the brain
Neural pathways are the vehicles through which different parts of the brain are able to communicate with one another. Memory, behavior, and speech are just a few examples of our brains utilizing these pathways. 

In its summary of the study, Science Daily notes that the “combination of reduced neurons and damaged pathways impede the brain's ability to communicate, resulting in behaviors that are often found in children with autism, including repetitive behavior, mobility issues and inability to interact with others.” 

The body’s chemical balance is altered during pregnancy, and this can cause increases in acids like PPA. However, the researchers explain that eating more processed foods can also contribute to higher levels of PPA. 

More Research Needed

The results of the study have mandated further research in order to establish clinical conclusions. The team at the University of Central Florida will continue to test their theory by moving onto animal testing. Their next step is to determine “if a high PPA maternal diet causes autism in mice genetically predisposed to the condition.” 

The researchers are hopeful that their work will help medical professionals to better understand ASD and provide more nuanced treatment for the condition. 


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