Published on November 2, 2023, 11:02 am
The role of diet in treating conditions like autism spectrum disorder may seem unlikely, but recent research suggests a connection between the ketogenic diet, brain function, social behavior, and autism. The ketogenic diet is a popular weight loss regimen that focuses on inducing a state called ketosis, where the body uses fats instead of carbohydrates for energy. This process produces molecules called ketones that have been found to have neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory effects.
Children with epilepsy often follow the ketogenic diet to reduce the frequency of seizures. However, the exact mechanism behind its neurological benefits remains unknown, and long-term side effects have been reported in individuals trying the diet outside of clinical settings.
To shed light on this link between diet and brain function, researchers conducted experiments using Astyanax mexicanus cavefish. These eyeless fish have adapted to survive in dark cave environments and share fundamental features with vertebrates, making their findings applicable to other species. Masato Yoshizawa, a geneticist and neuroscientist at The University of Hawai‘i Mānoa’s School of Life Sciences, noticed similarities between the behavior of these fish and patients with autism. Cavefish displayed avoidance of peers and engaged in repetitive behaviors similar to swimming in circles. Interestingly, patterns of gene regulation also resembled those observed in autistic patients.
Yoshizawa collaborated with Ryan Lee from Shriners Hospital for Children Honolulu who had successfully experimented with ketogenic diets for improving symptoms in autism patients. They decided to test whether the same dietary intervention could have an impact on cavefish behavior. To do so, they fed cavefish a modified version of the ketogenic milk given to human patients while monitoring their behavior over time.
The results were remarkable. After just one month on the ketogenic diet, the cavefish began exhibiting more social behaviors typical among surface-dwelling fish. They started following each other in groups and ceased their repetitive swimming patterns. Although attention to specific tasks and sleeping habits were unaffected, the overall results were promising.
Yoshizawa suggests that dopamine might play a crucial role in how the ketogenic diet affects behavior. Further investigation is required to unravel the complex factors involved in this process. Two plausible theories include the involvement of mitochondria, which produce energy in cells using carbs or fats, and epigenetics, which refers to non-genetic influences on gene expression.
While cavefish are not a perfect model for human autism, these research findings provide valuable insights into the biology and evolution of behavioral conditions. They open up new avenues for future research and highlight potential targets for developing more effective treatments for autism spectrum disorder.
Understanding the potential benefits of the ketogenic diet extends beyond weight loss. Through studies like these, scientists can uncover connections between diet and brain function, paving the way for improved treatments that address neurological disorders. It’s an exciting time in research as we continue to expand our knowledge of health, diet, and weight loss while making important strides towards better healthcare outcomes.