Research questions diet in treating autism

    Autism researchers from around the globe are in Philadelphia this week to share their latest results on causes, prevention and treatments.

    Sometimes there’s also a bit of myth-busting. One group presented data that poke a hole in a popular diet used by many families of children with autism. WHYY’s health and science reporter Kerry Grens paid a visit to the conference.

    A diet free of gluten and a common dairy protein — popularized by outspoken advocate and actress Jenny McCarthy — is considered by many parents to be a remedy for some symptoms of autism. Susan Hyman is a professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

    Hyman: It’s a very commonly used intervention. It’s very popular. And certainly there’s a lot of anecdoctal support.

    But no good scientific data supporting those observations. Hyman’s team followed 14 children who were randomly placed on the diet, or kept on a regular diet.

    Dawson: And they found that it wasn’t working, that the kids didn’t change in their behavior.

    Geri Dawson is the Chief Science Officer of Autism Speaks. She says the study is important because it’s the first controlled experiment about this diet. The observations from parents that children improve may still be legitimate, Hyman says, but it doesn’t look like ingredients are the reason.

    Scientists are also presenting findings on their hunt for the causes of this disorder. The community has established that genes are partly to blame for causing autism — but environmental factors appear to play a role as well. Ditza Zachor from Tel Aviv University looked at pre-natal conditions, including in-vitro fertilization. Her group found IVF is associated with — but does not necessarily cause — autism.

    Zachor: But I think it raises a very important question because many couples who are infertile go for this procedure and they need to know whether there is any risk for autism or not.

    Zachor says the research is still in its infancy, and more needs to be done to discover if there really is a link. There could be other factors affiliated with IVF that are involved in autism.

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