A College of Medicine biomedical sciences major investigating the link between processed food and autism presented her research findings at the state Capitol recently, sharing her discoveries with lawmakers, scientists and citizens from across Florida. Aseela Samsam was one of four UCF students chosen to represent student research at the Undergraduate Research Posters at the Capitol event.
Samsam has been part of a potentially groundbreaking study that found high levels of a food preservative called propionic acid (PPA), which, if consumed by expectant mothers, could increase the chances of autism in their children. The study, led by the College of Medicine Drs. Saleh Naser and Latifa Abdelli, found that high concentrations of PPA lead to an imbalance in how neurons in the brain form. That causes a decrease in neural cells and damages the development of fetal brains. The results of the study were published in Scientific Reports in June 2019 and received news coverage worldwide, including Forbes magazine.
“It was an honor to be at the state Capitol discussing the autism research at our university,” Samsam said. “I’m happy to take the research out of the lab and UCF to a greater audience.”
With one in 59 children affected by autism, the need to understand the factors that cause the condition is more urgent than ever. According to the Autism Society, more than 3.5 million people in the United States live with an autism spectrum disorder, which can affect communication, behavior, movement and social development.
Samsam became interested in autism as a high school student when she participated in a Peer Inclusion Team that worked with special needs children.
“I became more and more interested in understanding and treating neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism spectrum disorders,” she said, “and wanted to see if there are ways to prevent or treat it.”
The Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences senior said her inspiration to pursue science and medicine come from her parents, Drs. Mohtashem Samsam and Raheleh Ahangari, both professors at the UCF College of Medicine.
“We are so proud of Aseela,” said Dr. Naser, “to be able to represent our lab and UCF – and to show how young researchers can really make a big impact.”
Samsam has already been accepted into medical schools for next fall and is looking forward to continuing her work on autism.
“I know there has to be more clues to discover, so it’s a stepping stone to find more factors linked to autism,” she said. “It’s like putting pieces together and then making sense of it and how it is important to the world.”