Giving beneficial bacteria to stressed mothers during the equivalent of the third trimester of pregnancy prevents an autism-like disorder in their offspring, according to a new animal study by researchers.
The study by the University of Colorado Boulder was published in the journal Brain, Behaviour, and Immunity.
It marks the latest in a series of studies in animals and humans suggesting that exposure to certain immune-modulating microbes can dampen inflammation, positively impacting the brain and central nervous system.
It's among the first studies to suggest that such exposures during pregnancy influence neurodevelopment of a fetus and, while far more research is necessary, could open the door to new prenatal interventions.
In humans, research has long shown that maternal stress during pregnancy prompts systemic inflammation in both the mother and fetus and is a risk factor for autism, said senior author Daniel Barth, a professor of psychology and neuroscience.
In a previous study, Barth found that when rats were stressed and given a drug called terbutaline, which is often administered to women to delay preterm labour, their offspring demonstrated an autism-like syndrome - including the two hallmark features of social deficits and repetitive behaviour.
They also developed an epilepsy-like seizure disorder.