Omega-3 is considered neuroprotective, so the researchers “were surprised when we didn’t find studies that looked at omega-3 levels in children with autism.”
Prof. Yasmin Neggers, PhD, RD, a researcher in the University of Alabama’s Department of Human Nutrition and a specialist in prenatal nutrition, was inspired recently by a visiting colleague to learn more about autism – a poorly-understood, diverse disorder that affects the brain’s normal development of social and communication skills.
Dr. Neggers and her colleague, Dr. Eun-Kyung Kim from Kangnung-Wonju National University in Korea, 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 brain.
“Many studies have shown omega-3 fatty acids [found in salmon and many other foods] to be neuroprotective because they decrease the risk of neurological problems,” Dr. Neggers explains. “We were surprised when we didn’t find studies that looked at omega-3 levels in children with autism.”
Diets in Autism and Control Groups Were Similar
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 and commonly referred to as “good cholesterol.”
For both omega-3 and HDL levels, it’s often believed, the higher the better. High levels of HDL seem to protect against heart attacks, while low levels increase the risk of heart disease.
According to Dr. Neggers:
• “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.”
Dr. Neggers is not suggesting that parents change their children’s diets – quite yet. More studies need to be done:
• “We wouldn’t suggest starting to give omega-3 supplements to autistic children yet, although it wouldn’t hurt because it’s good for you,” she says.
• “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 autism.
• What’s important about these findings is what it could mean later in life for the person with autism.
Mystery still surrounds autism. Dr. Neggers hopes this is one more clue to solve it.