Autism and Your Gut

April 29, 2014

Lately, the scientific community has taken a new interest in the bacteria, fungi, and viruses that live on and in the human body. According to microbiologist, Jonathan Eisen, we typically carry ten times as many of these microbe cells—particularly within our gastrointestinal tract—as we do human cells. In fact, the total mass of microbes outweighs our brain! 

The collection of these microbes in our body is called our “microbiome.” And as more and more research is beginning to show, these microscopic agents may make a significant impact over our development, functioning, and behavior, even beyond our genetic make-up and other environmental influences.

Many factors determine the types of microbes in our bodies, including, for example, our diet, antibiotic histories, and the populations of microbes living in and on family members.  Most of these microbes are “good” to us.  They help synthesize nutrients, breakdown waste products, and produce hormones and neurotransmitters that support our immune and nervous systems.

When we have a lack of diversity in our microbiome or an abundance of “problematic” microbes, however, we may experience a variety of health complications.  Ongoing research projects are currently investigating the relationship between our gut microbiome and illness such as obesity, celiac disease, allergies, heart disease, Crohn’s disease, etc.

Of particular interest to me, are recent findings that suggest a possible link between the gut microbiome and Autism.  Several studies conducted over the past decade or so have examined the gut microbiome of individuals with Autism and the associated gastrointestinal problems these individuals often experience.  Researchers have found some significant differences in the variety and abundance of specific bacteria in fecal samples of children with Autism, compared to samples from their families and children without Autism.  For example, Dae-Wook Kang and colleagues (2013) found a significant lack of microbial diversity in a sample of children with Autism.  Adams et al. (2011) found significant correlations between gastrointestinal issues and symptoms of Autism and significant differences in specific microbes in children with Autism.

Environmental factors, such as exposure to antibiotics, food preservatives, and other toxic chemicals may affect the gut microbiome and thereby create or exacerbate bacterial imbalances.  In one interesting study, researchers gave adolescent rats a chemical that is often used as a food preservative, and those rats demonstrated an increase in “autistic-like” behaviors.  Much additional research is still needed before these findings are linked with causation and translated into better diagnostic, preventative, and treatment protocols.

Research in this area really makes me think about the future direction of our knowledge and management of health and illness.  Imagine what would happen if our healthcare providers performed microbiome analyses on us when were atypical or unhealthy in some way and could diagnose, treat, or prevent underlying microbial imbalances. It’s already come to pass that some patients with significant and chronic bacteria imbalances receive fecal transplants from healthy donors to colonize more balanced bacteria in their own guts.  The possibilities are quite astounding, and we can all look forward to learning about new findings and applications of our advanced knowledge in the future.