A Trinity College study in Wednesday offers evidence that a strict diet high in fat and low in carbohydrates could reverse symptoms of autism.
The study, published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE, looked at the behaviors of mice bred to have the behavioral characteristics of autism. The mice were fed a high-fat, low-carb diet, known as a ketogenic diet. After three to four weeks, the symptoms of autism reversed significantly and the mice began to act similarly to the non-autistic mice.
Susan Masino, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Trinity, led the study. Also contributing were researchers at the Legacy Research Institute in Portland, Ore.; the Jikei University School of Medicine in Tokyo; and University of Calgary in Alberta.
Masino said the ketogenic diet has been used for decades to treat epilepsy and is known to significantly reduce and, in some cases, eliminate, patients' seizures. More recently, the diet has been studied as a means to treating other neurological disorders, including autism. A 2003 study out of Greece found that 18 of 30 children with autism showed improvement.
Masino said the ketogenic diet is very strict and requires medical supervision. It can be time consuming, and children might not take to it easily.
"The diet has to be very carefully measured and weighed, and the parents have to be trained," she said. "Your food is essentially treated like medicine."
Masino said she is following up the PLOS ONE study with another that looks at what happens when the mice are taken off the ketogenic diet after a certain period. She said she hopes that further studies will show that the ketogenic diet could permanently reverse the symptoms even after the patient is no longer on the diet.
The diet causes the body's main source of fuel to shift from sugar or glucose to fat. Exactly why this would have an effect on either epilepsy or any other neurological disorder is something scientists still don't know. Masino thinks it has something to do with adenosine, a chemical increased by the ketosine diet that appears to link metabolism with neuronal activity.
Jennifer Maddan Cohen, medical director of the epilepsy center at Connecticut Children's Medical Center, said the results of Masino's study are encouraging but stressed that there is still not enough information to truly know the effects of the ketogenic diet.
"It's good mouse data, but there's not a lot of data in humans," she said. "I think there's certainly maybe something to the ketogenic diet in patients with autism but the point we're at now is that there's not enough data to support it."
If it does work, Maddan Cohen said, the next question is how well does it work and "how much will you have to give up and have medical side effects?"
"It's not an easy diet for people keep up with," she said, adding that anyone on a ketogenic diet should do so only with medical supervision. A ketogenic diet can have severe side effects for children, she said, including hypoglycemia, which can make them lethargic and even comatose.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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