Autism, A Gastrointestinal-Spectrum Disorder?

Recent research suggests that variations in the gut microbiome could be linked with autism-spectrum disorder symptoms. In fact, the 1st International Symposium on the Microbiome in Health and Disease with a Special Focus on Autism held a day-long workshop which highlighted the possibility that some autism-spectrum disorders (ASDs) could actually be caused by an imbalanced gut.

Scientific evidence shows that the gut microbiome (the trillions of microbes that inhabit your digestive tract) plays a role in maintaining good health, and that any disruption in the microbiome may well be the cause of certain diseases. In addition, this bacterial ecosystem has also been found to regulate how people feel and think. It’s been discovered that this assemblage of bacteria can play an important role in depression, autism, anxiety, as well as other mood disorders. Research has been growing, providing evidence that the composition of the gut microbiome in a person on the autism spectrum deviates from what is usually observed in non-autistic individuals. In fact, gastrointestinal problems are often noted among children on the autism spectrum, and this has increased substantially in recent years. These problems often include gastrointestinal abnormalities such as gluten sensitivity, food allergies, as well as other digestive issues. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, they estimate that among 8 year-old children, about 1 in 68 have received an autism spectrum diagnosis.

Microbiologist Sarkis Mazmanian, from the California Institute of Technology, focuses on a common species of gut bacteria called Bacteroides fragilis. This bacteria can be seen in smaller quantities than normal in some of the children who are on the autism spectrum. Mazmanian and several of his colleagues published a paper titled “The Microbiota Modulates Gut Physiology and Behavioral Abnormalities Associated with Autism” in the journal titled Cell, in which they fed B. fragilis from humans to mice who demonstrated symptoms similar to autism. This treatment wound up altering the makeup of the mice’s microbiome, and improved the mice’s overall behavior. They showed less repetitive ticks, became less anxious, and showed to have improved communication skills with the other mice.

Though how exactly these microbes interact with the illness still remains a mystery, Mazmanian and his colleagues have identified a potential link. A chemical called 4-ethylphenylsulphate, or otherwise known as 4EPS, is found to be 40 times higher in the blood mice that showed symptoms of autism. Even though the link between 4EPS and the brain is not completely clear, when 4EPS is injected into healthy mice they then develop autism-like symptoms. This breakthrough in understanding how the gut microbiome contributes to autism suggests that adjusting the composition of gut bacteria could become a viable treatment option for autism, as well as for other neurodevelopmental disorders!

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