Bay Area researchers probe vitamin D link to autism

Scientists from Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute believe they've uncovered the source of an imbalance linked to autism.
March 27, 2014 11:06:12 PM PDT
For decades researchers have probed the brains of children with autism looking for clues to the condition. Among the findings, those studies have long noted low levels of the hormone serotonin, an important player in brain development. Now scientists from Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute believe they've uncovered the source of that imbalance.

"In that moment I thought, 'Oh my goodness, maybe Vitamin D is regulating the production of serotonin and that's playing a role in Autism,'" says Rhonda Patrick, Ph.D.

Patrick, a post-doctoral fellow, and professor Bruce Ames compared gene sequences responsible for serotonin and two other key hormones also linked to behavior or brain development. They found all three are regulated by vitamin D.

"And this was the real aha moment," says Patrick. "And that is the vitamin D response element."

Vitamin D is absorbed into the body primarily from sunlight. While there have been several theories in recent years proposing links to autism and other diseases, many researchers have remained skeptical. Still Patrick and Ames believe their results argue for deeper research into optimal levels of the vitamin, particularly during pregnancy and early childhood.

"It's a pill that costs a few pennies. Vitamin D is cheap, and you can take it as a pill, but you should measure yourself," says Professor Ames.

One recent survey found that nearly seven out of 10 people in the U.S. do not meet the suggested recommendations for vitamin D levels in the body.

Written and produced by Tim Didion


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