Autism and Zinc Deficiency – A Connection?

Zinc is an important trace element in the early development of the child. If there is a lack of zinc, this deficiency could lead to defective development of the synapses in the brain and thus to autism.

Zinc deficiency could be one of the causes of autism

Zinc is an important trace element. Since it is required to a greater extent for the development of the embryo, a zinc deficiency should be avoided, especially during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine wrote in Frontiers in Molecular Neuroscience in November 2018 that zinc deficiency may even be linked to the development of autism (1).

Autistic people often suffer from zinc deficiency

As early as June 2017, the Medical Journal reported on a study in which increased lead concentrations in milk teeth of autistic children (compared to healthy children) and zinc and manganese deficiencies could be measured at the same time. These were tooth areas that are created perinatally (in a period shortly before to shortly after birth), i.e. at a point in time that is also associated with the development of autism. However, autistic children also show a zinc deficiency in their blood more often than healthy children.

The dental examination again confirmed the suspicion that environmental factors are definitely involved in the development of autism. The hereditary factors are only half responsible for the disease – according to the medical journal at the time.

Several studies have addressed the aforementioned zinc deficiency as a contributory cause of autism. Animal studies have long shown that a mother’s diet low in zinc is more likely to lead to autistic offspring. Yes, even if you are genetically predisposed to autism, zinc appears to be helpful.

Zinc can reverse cell changes caused by autism-typical gene mutations

Zinc is particularly needed in the brain, which therefore naturally has a high zinc level. Cell communication in the brain is regulated by zinc, among other things. Even cells carrying the autistic genetic material respond positively to zinc, researchers at the University of Auckland /New Zealand wrote in August 2016 ( 4 ).

Cell changes in the brain caused by the autism-typical gene mutations could therefore be reversed with the help of zinc.

Zinc improves cell communication in the brain

“We focused on the Shank3 protein, which is found in the synapses* of the brain and is so damaged in neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism or schizophrenia due to a gene mutation that nerve cell communication no longer functions properly. Patients with gene mutations in the Shank3 protein, therefore, show profound communication and behavioral deficits,” said Dr. Johanna Montgomery from the Center for Brain Research at the University of Auckland.

“Interestingly, the gene mutations observed in autism and the resulting changes in the Shank3 protein do not result in a loss of responsiveness to zinc,” explained Montgomery. “We were, therefore, able to show that zinc can improve cell communication in the brain, even if it was previously impaired by the gene mutation typical of autism.”

*Synapses: Synapses are the most important switching points in the brain. It is the connection point between two nerve cells (a transmitter and a receiver cell) where the signal transmission takes place. There are 100 trillion synapses in the human brain. The interaction of these synapses determines the behavior of each individual human being. According to biochemist Nils Brose, synapses are highly complex molecular machines made up of hundreds of different proteins (protein building blocks). The interaction of these protein building blocks is responsible for the precise function of these synapses. Disorders can develop here, including autism.

“Zinc is closely linked to the development of autism”

This fact was again confirmed in the study from autumn 2018 mentioned at the beginning. Study author Dr. Sally Kim of Stanford University School of Medicine wrote:

“Zinc levels in nerve cells are closely linked to the development of autism because zinc affects certain synapse proteins.”

Kim and colleagues discovered that when signals are transmitted in the synapse, zinc enters the recipient cell where it can bind to two proteins called Shank2 and Shank3. These proteins in turn influence the maturation of nerve cells during embryonic and early development.

If you give additional zinc, the maturation of the nerve cells accelerates, according to study leader Dr. Huong Ha. Together with the proteins mentioned, zinc can therefore contribute to the comprehensive development of nerve cells and their synapses.

Zinc deficiency in early development leads to disturbances in the nervous system

“A lack of zinc in early development could contribute to the development of autism, since zinc deficiency leads to defective synapse maturation and disorders of neural networks,” explains Professor John Huguenard, who also contributed to the study. Neural networks are networks of nerve cells, i.e. interconnected nerve cells, which together fulfill a specific function in this special network.

“If we are able to fully understand the interactions between zinc and the shank proteins, this could lead to the development of diagnostic methods, but also to effective autism therapy and prevention methods,” Huguenard continues.

Zinc is often forgotten in pregnancy

Of course, before and during pregnancy, you should make sure that you are well supplied with ALL vital substances. While the focus is usually only on iron, folic acid, iodine, vitamin D and the B vitamins, zinc is often completely forgotten. However, it is precisely this trace element that cannot always be easily ingested in the required amount with the diet and should therefore not be forgotten during a vitamin and mineral check.

Can taking zinc protect the unborn child from autism?

There are still no studies that would specifically show that zinc supplementation could reduce the risk of autism. Nevertheless, a comprehensive zinc supply is a good idea in any case.

However, this does not mean that you should immediately consume large amounts of zinc. It just means that you should avoid zinc deficiency and therefore should first check your personal zinc status and the zinc content of your diet.

Only then can you decide whether you can take in the required amounts of zinc with the help of a change in diet (men 10 mg, women 7 mg, pregnant/breastfeeding women 10/11 mg) or whether a well-dosed dietary supplement would make sense.

Zinc overdoses must be avoided

Zinc overdoses must be avoided in any case, as they are toxic and can also lead to a copper deficiency, which in turn could lead to anemia and weakened bones.

Also consider that a zinc-rich diet may not be sufficient if there are absorption disorders in the intestine. Determining the zinc level in whole blood can provide information here. Autistic people often suffer from digestive problems. Celiac disease is also much more common in autistic people than in non-autistic people. Scientists then found that cleaning up the gut flora can improve autism symptoms.

A clean intestine can of course absorb zinc and other micronutrients better.

Autism and Zinc Deficiency

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