Follow Your Gut: Serious Grant Money to Seek Clues to Autism in the Gastrointestinal Tract

Don’t laugh. Maybe set aside your lunch for a minute, but don’t laugh. Much has been made in recent years of gut-brain interactions: the myriad ways the bacteria we host in our gastrointestinal tracts influence our personalities, decision-making abilities, and stress levels.

Radiolab blew my freaking mind when it talked about the parasitic infection toxoplasmosis in 2009, stating that the cat-carried protozoan can actually turn its human hosts into cat lovers, thus creating better habitats for itself. It sounds too crazy to be true, but the evidence exists. Further proof that your cat knows something you don’t when he looks at you with that smug, insouciant stare. Though toxoplasma gondii is a brain parasite unrelated to gut bacteria, it demonstrates the deep psychological influences of overlooked microbiota.

In so many other ways, the gut-brain niche of science seems to be humming right along. Studies looking at mental illness and gut associations are particularly hot, as researchers have repeatedly demonstrated that gut biota has a big influence on stress levels. Now Autism Speaks is getting in on the action, fronting $2.3 million to support research projects specifically geared toward exploring the gut-brain connection and autism.

Some of the funds will go to Dr. James Versalovic, of the Baylor College of Medicine and the Texas Children's Hospital, who will do an in-depth analysis of the microbiome, all the while looking for changes that influence autism symptoms and gastrointestinal problems.

Versalovic will also do a follow-up to the 2013 Autism Speaks-funded study that showed Bacteroides fragilis could “erase” autism-like behaviors in lab mice. "This study is crucial to help us determine whether there are important differences in the microbiome of individuals with [autism spectrum disorder] and whether these differences are specific to ASD and GI problems," said Paul Wang, Autism Speaks senior vice president and head of medical research.

Dr. Pat Levitt of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles received a second grant. His team will explore the unsavory possibility that autism symptoms are linked to chronic constipation. The project’s goal is to lay out clear guidelines for establishing personalized treatments to alleviate GI stress (that’s a more palatable way to put it) and autism symptoms.

A group of children selected for the study will be given the highest standard of care to address their digestive issues, and studied to see if covering their GI problems alleviates their autism. "This study will advance our understanding of the possible ripple effects of thorough treatment for constipation in individuals with ASD," said Wang. "If it shows that successful GI treatment improves more than abdominal pain—if it helps children with ASD be more receptive to social interactions—we will have gained critical knowledge. It may well be that thoroughly addressing GI issues will significantly reduce the need for behavioral medications for many of our children."