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Exploring autism’s gut-brain connection – one microbiome at a time

These Autism Speaks-funded researchers are exploring the role that intestinal bacteria may play in autism-related GI pain and challenging behavior


Many children and adults with autism struggle with related medical issues. Painful, chronic gastrointestinal (GI) problems rank among the most common. Yet we’re only beginning to understand autism’s mysterious gut-brain connection.

Autism Speaks has committed $2.3 million to its pioneering Gut-Brain Research Initiative. This includes a major grant to James Versalovic, of Baylor College of Medicine, to analyze the microbiome. The microbiome includes trillions of intestinal microbes that help us digest our food and regulate our immune system, affecting health throughout the brain and body.

For Ruth Ann Luna, director of medical metagenomics at the Texas Children’s Microbiome Center and a leading member of Versalovic’s team, this was more than a research project.

Researcher and mom

“As a scientist focused on the microbiome in children, these questions are highly relevant to my work, Dr. Luna says. “As the mother of a child with autism with limited verbal abilities and significant GI issues, these questions are everything.” Like many children with autism, Dr. Luna’s son suffers bouts of severe abdominal pain and bowel problems.

At the 2016 International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR), Dr. Luna shared the earliest findings from their Autism Speaks research – the first analysis of the microbiome of a child with autism and GI issues – together with a comparison to the microbiome of his unaffected sibling.

From this small pilot test, they found some significant results. The analysis showed that the child with autism – but not his sibling – carried a number of distinctive intestinal bacteria that earlier research had associated with autism. What’s more, these bacteria spiked in numbers during periods when he experienced significant worsening of autism symptoms – including self-injury.

With guidance from this first study, the researchers have refined the procedures they’ll use going forward with many more study.

Participants still needed

This Autism Speaks-funded study still needs more participants, including children with autism, their unaffected siblings and children in families unaffected by autism. Participation involves the collection of stool samples and a series of surveys and diaries completed by parents. Families interested in participating can contact Dr. Luna at

For more on this research, also see Dr. Luna’s blog post: “A gut feeling: Unlocking the mysterious of autism with Autism Speaks.”



The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.