A quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

The Autism Research Review International is quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

Winter, 2017 | Number 1, Volume 31

Animal study: ketogenic diet reduces ASD symptoms in mice

A new study adds to evidence that a ketogenic diet—which is high in fat, has adequate protein, and is very low in carbohydrates—may ameliorate symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). 

The ketogenic diet has been used for decades to treat childhood epilepsy. By drastically lowering carbohydrate intake, the diet—which requires medical supervision— reduces the blood glucose available to the body and forces it to burn ketone bodies for energy. There is evidence that the diet lowers inflammation, which plays a key role in both epilepsy and autism. 

David Ruskin and colleagues focused their study on autism linked to maternal immune activation, or MIA. Research indicates that children of mothers who experience MIA due to viral or bacterial infections during the first two trimesters of pregnancy have an elevated risk for ASD. The researchers replicated the effects of MIA by injecting a viral mimic into pregnant mice. 

Between weaning and five weeks of age, all offspring of the exposed mice ate a typical control diet. After five weeks of age, one group of mice remained on the control diet while a second group was switched to a ketogenic diet. When the mice were 8 to 9 weeks of age, the researchers tested their behavior and analyzed their blood. 

The researchers say that male mice eating the standard diet exhibited autistic-like behaviors including reduced sociability and increased repetitive behavior. “However,” they say, “ketogenic diet feeding partially or completely reversed all MIA-induced behavioral abnormalities in males.” Female offspring were unaffected by maternal exposure to the viral mimic, which the researchers say is not surprising given the high male prevalence in autism. 

However, while the female mice were unaffected in this study, Ruskin and colleagues note that other research using a different mouse model found that the ketogenic diet reduced autistic-like symptoms in females. In addition, they say, several clinical studies have shown that the diet can improve core symptoms in girls as well as boys with ASD. 

“Together,” they say, “these studies suggest a broad utility for metabolic therapy in improving core ASD symptoms, and support further research to develop and apply ketogenic and/or metabolic strategies in patients with ASD.”


“Ketogenic diet improves behaviors in a maternal immune activation model of autism spectrum disorder,” David N. Ruskin, Michelle I. Murphy, Sierra L. Slade, and Susan A. Masino, PLOS One, February 6, 2017 (free online). Address: David Ruskin, Department of Psychology, Neuroscience Program, Trinity College, Hartford, CT 06106 , [email protected].