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Autism and Gut Bacteria, Important Clues To Consider

Autism and gut bacteria

Many children with autism also experience gastrointestinal (GI) problems, which are typically associated with the presence and balance of bacteria in the intestinal tract. A new study indicates that a deficiency of certain important gut bacteria in children with autism provides important clues about the neurological disorder for both experts and parents to consider.

What can gut bacteria tell you about autism?

The list of causes and risk factors associated with autism is organic and the subject of much debate, controversy, and confusion. As the prevalence of autism keeps increasing, experts are desperately searching for clues about its causes and effective treatment options.

An investigative team from Arizona State University decided to explore the relationship between gut bacteria and autism using 20 normal and 20 autistic children. All the autistic children were evaluated for the severity of their developmental issues and any GI symptoms, and fecal samples were examined in all 40 participants.

Analysis of the fecal samples revealed that the presence of autistic symptoms was associated with a bacteria deficiency or less diverse bacterial presence rather than with the severity of GI symptoms. More specifically, the investigators found that the autistic children had significantly lower levels of certain bacteria; namely, Prevotella, Coprococcus, and Veillonellaceae.

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What’s so important about these bacteria? They play a significant role in how the body uses food; that is, they are involved in breaking down carbohydrates and/or in fermentation. In particular, the autistic children in this study had much lower levels of Prevotella, microorganisms that are gaining attention as being important in breaking down plant polysaccharides, which are found in many foods.

Other studies of autism and diet
Previous research has suggested food choices are important in autism. A 2012 study published in Clinical Epigenetics indicated that the standard American diet may play an important role in autism because it is associated with significant use of high fructose corn syrup, mineral deficiencies, and an inability of the body to eliminate the many toxins present in foods.

Approximately 17 percent of parents of children with autism try alternative diets and dietary measures to treat their children. An Autism Speaks study reported that casein-free and gluten-free diets, as well as the use of probiotics, are the most common dietary approaches taken by parents of autistic children.

The authors of the latest study are aware that their findings do not make it possible to come to any definitive conclusions about gut bacteria and autism. However, they also noted that “it is important to identify systemic microbiome [gut bacteria] changes and specific microorganism(s) that can be targeted for diagnosis as well as for treatment of autism-related GI problems and possibly other autistic symptoms.”

For now, there are no definitive answers about the link between autism and gut bacteria and/or diet, although the findings of the new study support the belief that there is a relationship between GI disorders and diet in autism. Therefore, parents of children with autism may want to talk to a knowledgeable expert about food choices and gut bacteria.

Dufault R et al. A macroepigenetic approach to identify factors responsible for the autism epidemic in the United States. Clinical Epigenetics 2012; 4:6
Kang D-W et al. Reduced incidence of Prevotella and other fermenters in intestinal microflora of autistic children. PLoS ONE 2013; 8(7): e68322