Vitamin D deficiency can put children at risk of autism-like behaviour

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Researchers at The University of Western Australia and Telethon Kids Institute have found vitamin D plays an important role in the brain development of children.

Vitamin D is not readily available in the diet, and mainly comes from exposure of the skin to sunlight and the effects of ultraviolet B radiation.

The study, which is published today in the Journal of Endocrinology, found female rats with low levels of vitamin D during pregnancy and lactation were more likely to have offspring that displayed unusual brain development. It is believed this can lead to autistic-like behaviour later in life, including characteristics such as reduced social interaction and impaired memory and learning.

Dr Caitlin Wyrwoll and colleagues at The University of Western Australia found rats born to vitamin D deficient mothers displayed altered social behaviour in adulthood.

”Differences in social behaviour are a hallmark of numerous human conditions, such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and these findings provide further evidence of the importance of maternal vitamin D levels during pregnancy in the brain development of offspring,” Dr Wyrwoll said.

ASD is a lifelong condition that ranges in severity and impacts how individuals interact and communicate. Epidemiological studies have found that lower levels of maternal Vitamin D during pregnancy are associated with an increased risk of ASD. However, biological mechanisms underpinning this relationship remain unclear.

”We found the rats with a vitamin D deficiency in early life displayed altered social behaviour, altered brain chemistry and impaired cognitive functioning,” Dr Wyrwoll said.

”For example offspring of vitamin D deficient mothers had less interest in interacting with a unfamiliar rat, compared to those who had mothers with healthy levels of vitamin D.”

Dr Wyrwoll said the researchers also conducted memory tests, including an object recognition test.

”The ability to differeniate between familiar and new objects was much lower in those rats with vitamin D deficiency in early life,” she said.
Dr Wyrwoll said although the study focused on rats, the data indicated vitamin D levels during pregnancy were important for brain development, and may point to a contributing factor in the development of neurodevelopmental conditions such as ASD.

”However further work is needed to establish whether these associations apply to humans,” she said.

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