Researchers have found that vitamin D treatments during pregnancy appear to prevent the development of autism in mice, and are now planning to investigate if similar effects can be achieved in humans using vitamin D supplements.
The research is still in its very early stages, but it's thought that vitamin D plays a big role in early brain development, and previous studies have suggested that vitamin D deficiency could influence the increased size and unique shape observed in the brains of people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
"Our study used the most widely accepted developmental model of autism, in which affected mice behave abnormally and show deficits in social interaction, basic learning, and stereotyped behaviours," says one of the team, Darryl Eyles from the University of Queensland in Australia.
"We found that pregnant females treated with active vitamin D (a different form than in supplements) in the equivalent of the first trimester of pregnancy produced offspring that did not develop these deficits."
For some background into the extensive research that's been done on vitamin D and autism in the past, for more than a decade, scientists have been trying to figure out the significance of animal studies that have linked severe vitamin D deficiency to increased brain size and enlarged ventricles - characteristics similar to those found in children with ASD.
With ASD being such a complex condition, and thought to be affected by a range of risk factors, including genetics and perhaps even environmental conditionssuch as air pollutants and viral infections, this has been particularly difficult to study in humans.
But we have seen hints that there could be something to this hypothesis, not least of which is the fact that vitamin D deficiency during pregnancy has been linked to an array of physical and psychological conditions including schizophrenia, asthma, and reduced bone density.
Then there was that 2008 study by Swedish researchers that found the prevalence of autism and related disorders was three to four times higher among Somali immigrants in Stockholm than non-Somalis.