In a new study, researchers found that a deficiency in Vitamin D on the mother’s side could explain why autism spectrum disorder is three times more common in boys.
The research was conducted by a team from The University of Queensland.
In the study, the team found vitamin D deficiency during pregnancy caused an increase in testosterone in the developing brain of male rats.
They found that vitamin D plays a critical role in brain development and that giving vitamin D supplements to mice during pregnancy completely prevented ASD-like traits in their offspring.
The team says the biological cause of Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is unknown, but they showed that one of the many risk factors—low vitamin D in mothers—causes an increase in testosterone in the brain of the male fetuses, as well as the maternal blood and amniotic fluid.
In addition to its role in calcium absorption, vitamin D is crucial to many developmental processes.
The research also showed that in vitamin D-deficient male fetuses, an enzyme that breaks down testosterone was silenced and could be contributing to the presence of high testosterone levels.
The team says that excessive exposure of the developing brain to sex hormones like testosterone was thought to be an underlying cause of ASD, but the reasons remained unclear.
It may be because vitamin D is involved in pathways controlling many sex hormones.
The study is the first to show that a known risk factor for ASD alters testosterone in both the fetal brain and the mother’s blood—one possible contributor to why ASD is more prevalent in males.
The team’s next step is to look at other possible risk factors, such as maternal stress and hypoxia—lack of oxygen—and see if they have the same effect.
One author of the study is Professor Darryl Eyles.
The study is published in Molecular Autism.
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