Autism Speaks Announces Unprecedented Investment in Gut-Brain Research

Date: 
March 11, 2014
Autism Speaks invites grant applications for research on gut-brain interactions and treatment of autism-associated GI disorders

Autism Speaks has announced it’s taking a leadership role in advancing research on gut-brain interactions as well as the treatment of the GI disorders that commonly affect individuals with autism. The organization is inviting applications for research grants of up to $500,00 per year for up to 3 years to support the highest standards of innovative science.

“This represents an unprecedented investment in an area of research that’s long been a priority for our families,” says Autism Speaks President Liz Feld.

“Our science mission is committed to putting science to work for our families,” adds Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Rob Ring. “Both parents and clinicians have long pointed out the important role the gut plays in quality of life for some individuals living with autism. We have responded here with a significant investment towards improving our understanding of these connections and the implications for medical care and new treatments.”

Autism is commonly associated with a number of medical conditions that affect multiple organ systems. The gastrointestinal tract is among the most common of these “comorbidities.” In particular, many children and adults with autism suffer from constipation, diarrhea, intestinal abnormalities and related issues.

“In many cases, these GI issues may worsen autism’s behavioral symptoms, either directly or indirectly,” says developmental pediatrician Paul Wang, Autism Speaks senior vice president and head of medical research.

In calling for high-quality research proposals in this area, Autism Speaks recognizes a number of high-priority needs:

GI Pain and Behavior
The pain and discomfort associated with GI conditions can cause behavioral problems, ranging from irritability and inattentiveness to self-injury. This is particularly true for those who have limited or no verbal skills to express their distress.

“Autism-related communication challenges can make it difficult for therapists and healthcare providers to recognize GI problems in individuals with autism,” Dr. Wang says. “Too often, their GI disorders go untreated, and medication is used to control behavior instead of treating the underlying GI problem.”

Autism Speaks recognizes the great need for clear, evidence-based guidelines for evaluating possible GI disorders and other medical issues in children and adults with autism, especially when new behavioral challenges arise.

Exploring Gut-Brain Pathways

A growing body of research suggests that some GI abnormalities influence autism-related behaviors directly through gut-brain interactions. One route would be inflammation in the intestines spilling over to produce inflammation in the brain. Some research has linked changes in gut microflora to altered brain function and behavior. Still other studies suggest that certain diets and nutrients can change GI health and brain function.

“Many of these processes in the GI and nervous systems may be interconnected,” Dr. Wang says. “Yet they are largely unexplored, even in animal models.”

Call for research proposals

With its new request for grant applications, Autism Speaks seeks proposals that address the above issues. In particular, it is looking for clinical (patient-centered) research that advances the following:

* Understanding of the relationship between gut processes, brain function and autism symptoms

* Development of medical guidelines for evaluating individuals with autism for GI problems and other medical conditions that may be causing new behavioral challenges

* Interventions that can correct or improve abnormal gut microflora or gut inflammation in those with autism

* GI treatments that improve autism symptoms and brain function

* Understanding of how autism and its associated medical conditions can affect an individual’s nutritional health

* Understanding of the mechanisms that link GI and nervous system processes in individuals with autism.

In pursuit of the highest standards in research proposals, Autism Speaks will make a limited number of awards of up to $500,000 per year for up to 3 years. For more information and to apply for research funding, click here.

RFA release date: March 11, 2014

Letter of Intent due: April 16, 2014, 8:00 PM Eastern

LOI notifications sent: Early May, 2014

Application due: June 18, 2014, 8:00 PM Eastern

Peer review panels: Summer 2014

Notifications: Mid-September 2014

Earliest Grant start date: November 2014