Carnitine – L-Carnitine Health Benefits & Autism Help?

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Can Carnitine Really Reduce the Risk of Autism?

A new study from Texas A&M suggests that taking Carnitine supplements before pregnancy can reduce the risk of autism in babies. Here’s everything you need to know about this landmark new study.

Recent Research On Carnitine

Texas A&M University Study Suggests Taking Carnitine Before Pregnancy Can Lower Autism Risk

In a study published this past week in Cell, researchers suggested that taking carnitine before and during pregnancy can reduce the risk of autism in the developing fetus.

Carnitine, by the way, is an amino acid. Our body requires carnitine to stay healthy. We typically get carnitine from red meat, and vegetarians typically get carnitine from whole milk. Others may take carnitine as a supplement.

The body also produces small amounts of carnitine on its own.

Our bodies use carnitine to transport fatty acids into the mitochondria, which is the part of the cell that converts fats into energy.

In previous studies, researchers have shown that inherited mutations in a gene named TMLHE that is required for carnitine biosynthesis are strongly associated with a risk for developing autism.

Until this latest study, researchers didn’t understand why this link existed. Now, after this latest study was published in Cell, we know why there’s an apparent connection between autism and carnitine.

Carnitine Deficiency Interferes with the Normal Developmental Processes

Now, researchers understand why there’s a connection between carnitine and autism.

Carnitine deficiency has been linked to a reduced ability for the body to develop its neural stem cells.

Specifically, when the body doesn’t get enough carnitine, it prevents neural stem cells from promoting and organizing embryonic and fetal brain development.

This connection was observed thanks to a new technology created by assistant research scientist Zhigang Xie, who works at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine.

That new technology allows him to mark, follow, and analyze individual neural stem cells. We’ve seen technology like this before, but Xie’s technology is the first to track stem cells in their native environment in a real, developing brain.

As Xie explains,

“It’s very difficult to study neural stem cells in their complex natural environment. But now we have a technology that makes such studies possible.”

Thanks to this technology, Xie and his colleagues discovered that neural stem cells unable to produce carnitine don’t behave properly. In the developing brain, these neural stem cells are inappropriately depleted.

Meanwhile, when genetically-at-risk neural stem cells receive carnitine from an external source, they’re not observed to have the same problems.

In other words, you can give carnitine to a neural cell that’s at risk of developing autism, and that cell no longer develops autism.

Researchers eventually concluded that the connection lies in the way in which the autism-associated TMLHE gene encodes an enzyme that the body needs to manufacture carnitine. Autism risk mutations deactivate this gene, which causes neural stem cells to become less able to renew themselves.

Typically, when neural stem cells divide, they produce two “daughter” cells. One of those daughter cells remains a neural stem cell while the other differentiates. When a neural stem cell has a carnitine deficiency, they often divide to produce two differentiated cells, which means the developing brain is deprived of a neural stem cell it needs to grow.

Prospective Mothers May Undergo Testing in the Future

One of the most important things to get from this study is that there could be a test to determine a mother’s risk for giving birth to a baby with autism.

Because the TMLHE gene is a recognized signal for autism, and we know its location on the chromosome, scientists may be able to test prospective mothers for TMLHE mutations before they become pregnant, or early in the pregnancy.

If that mother is observed to be at a higher risk for the mutation, then doctors may recommend that the mother take a carnitine supplement before and during pregnancy in order to protect the health of the developing embryo and fetus, reducing the risk of autism.

This Won’t Prevent All Cases of Autism

Taking a carnitine supplement isn’t expected to prevent all cases of autism, because autism can occur for all different reasons.

Vytas A. Bankaitis, a Texas A&M chemistry professor who collaborated on the Cell report, had the following to say:

“Even if this strategy works, it will not be a panacea for reducing all autism risk. While it could work in cases involving carnitine-deficiency, other pathways are also in play because as many as 1000 genes might ultimately be found to relate to autism risk. “

Nevertheless, Bankaitis added that TMLHE alleles are “surprisingly common” in the human population, so the carnitine discovery has the potential to help millions of prospective mothers:

“For some individuals, this simple nutritional supplement might really help reduce the risk of developing autism spectrum disorder. Any progress on the prevention front would be welcome given the number of people affected.”

Should You Take a Carnitine Supplement Before or During your Pregnancy?

This latest report published in Cell is the best evidence we have yet that taking carnitine before or during pregnancy can reduce the risk of autism in the developing embryo, fetus, and baby.

However, some mothers already have sufficient levels of carnitine. Others might not carry the mutation that’s affected by carnitine deficiency. And some embryos may be at risk for developing autism for all sorts of other reasons.

The best option is to talk about these latest findings with your doctor and ask for their recommendations. Your doctor knows the unique characteristics of your body and can recommend a solution that works for your unique needs.

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