has announced grants totaling more than $2.3 million in support of research projects designed to advance understanding of autism’s gut-brain connection.
Grant recipients include Dr. James Versalovic of the in Waco, Texas, who will lead an in-depth analysis of the microbiome — the gut's complex community of digestive bacteria — with a focus on changes that relate to autism symptoms and gastrointestinal problems. The study also will follow up on the results of earlier AS-funded research in which scientists eased autism-like behaviors in a mouse model by feeding the animals Bacteroides fragilis, a microbe that occurs naturally in a healthy human intestinal tract. If successful, the research may lead to the development of tests that use new biomarkers to inform personalized treatments for autism and its associated medical conditions. "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.
A second grant was awarded to Dr. Pat Levitt, of , whose team will explore how thorough treatment of chronic constipation improves behavioral symptoms and biological stress in children with autism. The project is designed to establish clear guidelines for personalizing treatments that can reduce GI distress and autism symptoms. Over the course of a year, the children selected for the study will receive the highest standard of care to address and relieve their chronic constipation. At the same time, researchers will assess changes in autism symptoms with behavioral tests and analyze blood samples for biochemical signs of oxidative stress. Previous studies have associated oxidative stress — a sign of cell damage — with autism and constipation.
"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."