Childhood autism may be linked to a deficiency of fatty acids, researchers said. The exact causes of autism remain unknown, although it is thought genetic factors or a variety of conditions affecting brain development may play a role.
Now, the results of a pilot study in Scotland have suggested that the behavior of fatty acids in the blood of children diagnosed with autism may differ from that of other youngsters.
The researchers, from the universities of Stirling and Edinburgh, the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh and South Glasgow University Hospitals NHS Trust, have been awarded £125,335 ($228,600) by the Chief Scientist Office to carry out further research to back up their findings.
The study will measure the blood fatty acid levels of 50 children with autism and compare them to samples from non-autistic children.
Fatty acids can be found in fish such as mackerel and salmon, and are also available as health supplements.
However, the researchers said they did not yet know whether taking such supplements could be beneficial in the battle with autism.
Lead researcher Gordon Bell, of the University of Stirling, said, "Fatty acids are required for the optimal function of cells and organs such as the brain and eyes as well as for fighting off infection.
"Our preliminary research shows that levels of an enzyme involved in fatty acid metabolism may be higher in children with autism, and therefore, these children may metabolize fatty acids quicker.
"However, it is too early to say whether fatty acid food supplements could help."
Anne O'Hare, of the University of Edinburgh, added, "The number of children diagnosed with autism has increased dramatically over the past 10 years, both in Scotland and in the developed world as a whole.
"We hope that this new research will lead to the development of treatments for managing autism in children."