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Professor links autism to Omega-3 fatty acids

Jamia Cammeron

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Yasmin Neggers, professor of human nutrition and hospitality management, has found a possible link in children with autism and Omega-3 fatty acids. Neggers developed an interest in autism after a relative was diagnosed with a mild form of Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder. Autism Spectrum Disorders and autism are both general terms used to identify a group of disorders of brain development. Similar to most autism spectrum disorders, Asperger’s syndrome is characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. Furthermore, after visiting a colleague from Korea working in this area, her interest increased tremendously. Neggers decided she wanted to take part in this area of research. With the help of her colleague, Neggers conducted a matched case control study in Korea, comprised of 29 young, autistic boys. The boys, ranging from eight to 11 years old, were recruited from a local school for disabled children. In addition, 29 comparably healthy boys participated in the study. Because Omega-3 fatty acids are linked to several developmental disorders, Neggers began exploring components of the body’s metabolism system, particularly Omega-3 fatty acids. “Omega-3 fatty acids are found in large amounts of nerve tissues, and obviously autism has something to do with the brain,” Neggers said. “Not dysfunction, but motor coordination and other things.” The children’s total cholesterol, high-density cholesterol, low density lipoprotein, LDL/HDL ratio, total fatty acid concentrations, along with Omega-3 fatty acids were measured. The study indicated that autistic children had a much lower level of total Omega-3 levels compared to healthy children, especially levels of docosahexaenoic acid. This Omega-3 fatty acid is now a strong predictor of autism. Also, Neggers said the ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acids was significantly lower in autistic children. In other words, the professor discovered autistic children exhibited an Omega-3 deficiency. According to the Center for Disease Control, autism has increased in prevalence nearly 600 percent in the last two decades. Autism Speaks, a science and advocacy organization, reported more children will be diagnosed with autism this year than childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes or pediatric AIDS combined. With autism as the fastest-growing serious developmental disability in the United States, researchers are striving to pinpoint the exact cause of this disorder. Neggers’ research regarding Omega-3 deficiencies in autistic children is groundbreaking. Although researchers often disagree about the causes of autism and the origins of its recent increase, Neggers’ study will likely serve as the foundation for similar research to come. In addition to recent studies, the professor has done extensive research in other areas, including zinc status during pregnancy and factors related to infant birth rate. In 2009, the professor discovered that low blood zinc levels in expectant mothers increased the risk of low birth weight by approximately eight times. In the future, Neggers hopes to obtain a federal grant and conduct similar studies, involving pregnant women and evaluate the women throughout pregnancy. Neggers plans to combine this research with her recent study of Omega-3 fatty acids in an attempt to find a correlation with autism.

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Professor links autism to Omega-3 fatty acids