Prenatal Exposure to Caffeine and High-Fat Diets Heighten Autism Risk in Rodent Models

A new study has found that caffeine exposure during pregnancy and a high-fat diet following delivery considerably heightens the risk of autism-like behaviors, as observed in rodent models. Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disorder that influences how individuals interact, behave, learn and communicate. Children with this condition may have trouble with social interactions as well as display repetitive behaviors, among other symptoms.

Given that caffeine consumption and high-fat diets are widespread, it is important to understand possible risk factors and develop strategies to prevent the disorder’s development.

For their study, the researchers divided pregnant rats into two groups, one of which was exposed to caffeine during an important period of gestation. The other group acted as the control and received a placebo. Their objective was to make it so that the offspring would either be born with intrauterine growth retardation or normal conditions. Intrauterine growth retardation has been associated with heightened risk for developing autism spectrum disorder.

After their birth, the offspring were also divided into two groups, half of them receiving a high-fat diet while the other were on a standard diet. The researchers’ objective was to evaluate the combined effects of prenatal exposure to caffeine and postnatal dietary habits on the possibility of developing autism-like behaviors.

The researchers determined that female offspring exposed to caffeine demonstrated decreased spatial memory and exploration while males exhibited autism-like behaviors. When both female and male rats exposed to prenatal caffeine were put on a high-fat diet, the researchers observed aggravated autism-like behaviors.

Dan Xu, the author of the study and Wuhan University pharmaceutical sciences professor, stated that the researchers centered on adverse prenatal environments and postnatal secondary impacts because it was often overlooked during research on autism. Xu highlighted that, from the findings, more attention needed to be given to female offspring that had been exposed to adverse environments during the prenatal stages of development. The researchers also observed considerable changes in gut bacteria, which included increased E.coli and a damaged intestinal mucus barrier in the offspring exposed to caffeine and high-fat diets.

They explained that IL-17A, a cytokine that plays a crucial role in allergic responses, was also linked to the increased risk of autism-like behaviors. The cytokine is, as per prior research, a crucial factor in the development of autism spectrum disorder. In the report, Xu noted that the study raised awareness on preventing negative prenatal environmental exposures and healthy childbearing.

These findings give insight into the links between neurodevelopmental disorders, prenatal environmental exposures and diet. The results were published in “Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety.

With enterprises such as PaxMedica Inc. (NASDAQ: PXMD) working to bring effective autism spectrum disorder treatments onto the market, patients could have a brighter future in the not-so-distant future.

NOTE TO INVESTORS: The latest news and updates relating to PaxMedica Inc. (NASDAQ: PXMD) are available in the company’s newsroom at

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