07/03/2013 09:13 pm ET | Updated Sep 02, 2013

Autism May Start In The Gut, Study Finds



By Amir Khan

An autism breakthrough may be sitting in your gut, according to a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE. The gut bacteria of autistic children is vastly different than that of typical children, and researchers say that bringing their gut bacteria into line with a typical child could help doctors better treat autistic kids.

"One of the reasons we started addressing this topic is the fact that autistic children have a lot of GI problems that can last into adulthood," study author Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown, PhD, a researcher with Arizona State University, said in a statement. "Studies have shown that when we manage these problems, their behavior improves dramatically."

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Researchers compared the gut bacteria of 20 autistic and 20 healthy children, and found that autistic children not only had far less gut bacteria, but also had much lower diversity. Prevotella, a bacteria thought to play a role in regulating the gut microbiome, was found in conspicuously low levels in the stomachs of the autistic children, according to the study. Researchers theorize that a lack of prevotella, coupled with the little diversity in the gut, may be the root cause of the gastrointestinal problems that often affect afflict autistic children.

"We believe that a diverse gut is a healthy gut," Krajmalnik-Brow said in a statement.

This lack of diversity could also lead to inflammation, says Robert Melillo, MD, a neurologist and author of the book The Scientific Truth About Preventing, Diagnosing, and Treating Autism Spectrum Disorders -- and What Parents Can Do Now. Fixing their gut bacteria could help reduce the inflammation throughout the body.

"People with autism have an overactive immune response they develop antibodies against too many foods, chemicals and even their own tissue," he said. "Identifying those substances and eliminating them from the child's diet or reducing their exposure to these antigens reduces the inflammation and reduces many of the symptoms of autism."

Can Fixing the Gut Treat Autism?

While the study was small, researchers said uncovering the link between gut bacteria and autism could pave the way for future treatments of the condition. Normalizing the gut bacteria of autistic kids, they added, could help treat not only their GI problems, but other problems as well.

"The findings from this study are stepping stones for better understanding of the crosstalk between gut microbiota and autism," the researchers wrote in the study, "which may provide potential targets for diagnosis or treatment of neurological as well as GI symptoms in autistic children."

However, Dr. Meillo said that normalizing their gut bacteria would not be a miracle cure.

"It's clear that the brain is the cause of most of the immune and gut issues in children with autism," he said. "You cannot explain all of this the other way around where the gut can cause all of these issues and what we see in the brain."

And while it is still unclear how to fix the brain, he said it's clear that the gut should not be the primary target for treating autism.

"Gut problems are very important and need to be part of the solution, but the gut problems are really brain problems that are manifesting in the gut," he said. "To heal the gut we need to fix the brain."

"Autism May Start in The Gut, Study Finds" originally appeared on Everyday Health.

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