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Jun 3, 2014
09:44 AM

Intestinal Germs May Impact Autism, According to a Study

Research from Arizona State University finds that kids with autism have different concentrations of certain bacterial-produced chemicals than those without autism

Intestinal Germs May Impact Autism, According to a Study

Chemicals produced by the gut could actually affect kids with autism, according to a new study from Arizona State University.

The study, which examined the stool samples from 23 children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and 21 children without, suggests that kids with ASD have altered bacteria in their digestive tracts. The researchers found that children with ASD had significantly different concentrations of seven of the 50 compounds identified.

"Most gut bacteria are beneficial, aiding food digestion, producing vitamins, and protecting against harmful bacteria. If left unchecked, however, harmful bacteria can excrete dangerous metabolites or disturb a balance in metabolites that can affect the gut and the rest of the body, including the brain," Dae-Wook Kang of the Biodesign Institute of Arizona State University, an author on the study, says in a statement.

Dr. Mohammad F. El-Baba, the division chief of pediatric gastroenterology and fellowship program director at Children's Hospital of Michigan and Wayne State University says there is one limitation to the study: the number of participants.

"However," El-Baba says, "it emphasizes that further research is needed to clarify the role of intestinal bacteria or its metabolites in the etiology of gastrointestinal problems in individuals with ASD." 

He also cautions parents to be careful when news of new studies are presented, El-Baba says, because studies have major limitations – including bias in recruiting patients and lack of controls.

Digestive issues

Increasing research studies are looking at links between autism and digestive tract problems. Autism Speaks, an autism science and advocacy organization, reports that ASD is commonly associated with many medical conditions, and the digestive tract is the most common site. Children and adults with autism frequently experience bouts of constipation, diarrhea and digestive system abnormalities and other issues.

"The symptoms are somewhat similar to those of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)," El-Baba says. "Those individuals warrant a thorough evaluation by their primary care provider and may eventually warrant a referral to a specialist."

Parents as well as primary care providers should be alert to the presentation of atypical symptoms and signs of gastrointestinal disorders in children with ASD, El-Baba says.

"Individuals with ASD and gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms are at risk of more problem behaviors such as increased anxiety, irritability and social withdrawal. GI symptoms, particularly pain, could be the event that increases problem behavior," he says. "The impaired communication in many ASD individuals may lead to unusual symptoms of gastrointestinal disorders, including sleep disturbances and problem behaviors."

More research

Other studies suggest that looking at the intestinal structure of people diagnosed with autism could identify a group who might benefit from changes such as a gluten-free diet or adding probiotics to children's diets.

"Probiotics can be useful for maintaining or restoring the balance of the "good" intestinal bacteria," El-Baba says. "Research has shown efficacy of probiotics in some gastrointestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome and antibiotic-associated diarrhea."

It is useful in restoring the bacterial balance in the intestine and in relieving gastrointestinal symptoms. The use of probiotics by children with autism could lead to improvements in behaviors triggered by gastrointestinal problems such as pain or bloating. Parents need to discuss with the primary care physician prior to the use of probiotics in their children with ASD."

To continue their research, the folks at Arizona State University hope to obtain permission to experiment with fecal transplants, according to NBC News, to see if they can alter the symptoms of kids with autism, but the researchers face hurdles from The Food and Drug Administration before approval.

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