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How is Autism Linked to Gut Bacteria?

Updated on December 22, 2022

  • Research suggests that autism-related disturbances in the bacterial populations of the gut microbiome are associated with both gastrointestinal and neurobehavioral ASD symptoms.
  • A pregnant person’s gut microbiota might play a significant role in a child’s risk of autism.
  • Given the strong connection between the gut microbiome and autism, many researchers believe that interventions aimed at normalizing the microbiome might help treat ASD.

In recent years, evidence has emerged supporting the notion that autism spectrum disorder (ASD) might be linked to gut bacteria. Clarification of these connections is now helping scientists, clinicians, parents, and patients better understand the complexities of autism-related symptoms and their potential causes. A growing body of scientific literature is also paving the way for the development of therapies that specifically target the gut microbiome to provide symptom relief, including butyric acid supplements and fecal transplants.

Understanding How Autism is Linked to Gut Bacteria in Patients

Scientists first suspected that autism might be linked to gut bacteria based on the fact that GI symptoms like constipation and diarrhea are commonly experienced by individuals with autism. According to one estimate, for example, children with autism are about 19 percent more likely to have GI syndromes than their siblings without autism. It was clear that scientists were on the right track when studies began showing there were significant differences between populations of gut bacteria in patients with autism and healthy controls. One study from 2013 indicates that levels of Bifidobacterium species are lower in children with autism than in healthy controls, while levels of bacteria from the Caloramator, Sarcina, and Clostridium genera tend to be higher. Similarly, a 2015 study found lower levels of bacteria in the Prevotella and Coprococcus genera, as well as the unclassified Veillonellaceae bacterial group, in patients with autism. This study is particularly interesting because it was conducted in patients with autism who had minimal GI symptoms. Through their findings, the authors were able to establish an association between the abundance of the gut bacteria and the presence of autism-related symptoms rather than the severity of gastrointestinal symptoms, indicating that disturbances in gut bacteria populations may elicit neurobehavioral symptoms via the gut-brain connection.

In addition to differences in abundance of particular types of gut bacteria, multiple studies have also found less diversity in the gut microbiota of patients with autism than in healthy controls, both within and between bacterial phyla. Based on these data, some researchers have hypothesized that symptoms of autism might be linked to lower levels of beneficial chemicals produced when bacteria break down molecules in the gut. For instance, one study found that 4-ethylphenylsulfate, a metabolite produced by Bacteroides fragilis, could help reduce autism-like symptom in mouse models. Additionally, Prevotella, Coprococcus, and Veillonellaceae can all produce an unusually broad spectrum of metabolites, from which patients with autism are less likely to benefit due to their reduced abundance.

It is important to note that it is not yet entirely clear whether differences in microbial diversity have a causal or consequential association relationship with autism. However, one study in mice supports the hypothesis that changes in the gut microbiome could be causally linked to some autism symptoms. In a mouse model of autism characterized by anxiety and abnormal communication behaviors, researchers found that the mouse models are born with gut microbiota that differ in composition from those of healthy controls. Significantly, they also found that some of their anxiety and communication-related behaviors can be lessened with the introduction of a certain species of bacteria. This supports the theory that manipulation of the gut microbiome could provide new treatment possibilities for patients with autism.

However, reduced microbial diversity might not be the only link between gut bacteria in autism. A 2017 review paper highlights a combination of evidence from in vitro experiments, animal studies, and human studies indicating that symptoms of autism are associated with higher levels of intestinal permeability and defects in the gastrointestinal barrier. Put more simply, this means that, in patients with autism, metabolites are more likely to “leak” out of the gut into the bloodstream. As a result, toxins and bacterial products produced by bacteria like Lactobacillus might end up reaching the brain, where they can disrupt chemical balances and possibly exacerbate symptoms.

How a Mother’s Gut Bacteria Can Affect A Child’s Risk of Autism

Alongside the large body of research linking the gut microbiota of patients with autism to their symptoms, several exciting new studies have shed light on how autism might be linked to the gut bacteria of the mother. For instance, in an August 2017 study, researchers at the University of Illinois examined whether the composition of the microbiota of female pigs could affect the neurodevelopment of piglets. They noticed several significant relationships between the gut bacteria of mother pigs and the brain chemistry of their offspring, including a number of chemical irregularities previously observed in patients with autism. Specifically, they found that higher levels of the genera Bacteroides and Clostridium in mother pigs were associated with higher concentrations of the brain chemical myo-inositol in piglets. Elevated abundance of Bacteroides was also associated with higher levels of creatine in the brain. Higher levels of Butyricimonas were associated with higher concentrations of the chemical n-acetylaspartate (NAA), while higher levels of Ruminococcus were associated with lower levels of NAA in the brain. This study paves the way for future research on how a mother’s gut microbiome might affect neurodevelopment, and, in particular, the development of autism.

Recent epidemiological studies have also provided strong evidence demonstrating that women who experience a severe infection during pregnancy have a significantly higher risk of having a child with autism. In September 2017, researchers from MIT published a groundbreaking study that indicated, in mouse models, that the composition of the mother’s gut microbiome at the time of the infection can affect the risk that the infection will lead to ASD symptoms in the offspring. Certain strains of gut bacteria promote the development of certain types of immune cells and others are involved in activating those immune cells. The authors demonstrated that the activities of these bacteria were directly related to abnormalities caused by maternal immune activation.

Future Research Options for Treating Autism Linked to Gut Bacteria

There is now solid evidence that autism is linked to gut bacteria, in both mothers and patients. However, researchers remain hesitant about advocating specific prevention or treatment strategies, because large-scale studies have yet to be conducted. Preliminary research and anecdotal evidence indicate that probiotics, prebiotics, and dietary changes might all be effective for addressing symptoms in patients with autism. For instance, in a 2016 case study of a 12-year-old boy with an ASD diagnosis, a four-week treatment with a probiotic containing ten different strains led to significant improvements in social affect (a category that broadly includes multiple symptoms of autism) and chronic constipation. Based on results like these, clinicians, patients, and parents are looking forward to larger studies that can confirm initial findings. Researchers have also proposed more targeted therapies to manipulate the gut microbiome in patients with autism, such as butyric acid supplementation and fecal transplants, but these will also require more rigorous trials.

Additionally, the MIT researchers who studied how viral infections can affect autism risk have proposed treating mothers with therapeutics that block the activity of certain strains of gut bacteria. However, this remains a long way off, because their initial findings in mice must first be validated in humans before drug development can become feasible.Overall, it is clear there are strong links between autism and gut bacteria. It will be exciting to follow future studies probing autism linked to gut bacteria, especially as researchers seek to develop therapeutics that can make a difference in the lives of patients and parents. Already, cutting-edge research has led Tesseract Medical to develop advanced butyric acid products designed to optimize the ability of these supplements to provide critical nutritional support for patients.

The power of Tesseract supplements lies in the proprietary science of proven nutrients and unrivaled smart delivery, making them the most effective for supporting neurological health and gastrointestinal health.*

Works Cited

DeAngelis M, Piccolo M, Vannini L, Siragusa S, De Giacomo A et al. 2013. PLOS One.

Grossi E., Melli S, Dunca D, Terruzzi V. 2016. SAGE Open Medical Case Reports, 4.

Hsiao EY, McBride SW, Hsien S, Sharon G, Hyde ER et al. 2013. Cell. 155(7):1451-63.

Kim S, Kim H, Yim YS, Ha S, Atarashi K et al. 2013. Nature. 549:528-32.

Krajmalnik-Brown R., Lozupone C, Kang DW, Adams JB. 2015. Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease. 26.

Li Q, Han Y, Dy ABC, Hagerman RJ. 2017. Frontiers in Cellular Neuroscience.

Mudd AT, Berding K, Wang M, Donovan, S, Dilger RN. 2017. Gut Microbes. 8(6):589-600

Wang LW, Tancredi DJ, Thomas DW. 2011. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. 32(5):351-60.

Al Czap, Founder | Tesseract

Al Czap has more than four decades of professional experience in preventative medicine. He founded Thorne Research in 1984 (sold in 2010) and he published Alternative Medicine Review for 17 years beginning in 1996. AMR was a highly acclaimed, peer-reviewed, and indexed medical journal. Al was the first to recognize the need for hypoallergenic ingredients and to devise methods of manufacture for and delivery of hypoallergenic products to underserved patient populations. His work has greatly impacted those with impaired immune and digestive systems and compromised health due to environmental exposures.

The advanced formulations based on our revolutionary, patented, and patent-pending technology are only available through Tesseract. No other medical, pharmaceutical, or supplement company is licensed to utilize our proprietary technology.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
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