Unraveling Autism’s Gluten Mystery

Findings add to evidence that gluten-free diets may help ease GI problems in some individuals affected by autism

June 21, 2013

New research adds to the evidence of a potential link between autism and sensitivities to gluten, a protein found in certain grains such as wheat. The researchers found that elevated antibodies to gluten were more common among children with autism than in others. In addition, the elevated antibody levels corresponded to GI symptoms such as pain and constipation.

The study was made possible by families participating in Autism Speaks Autism Genetic Resource Exchange (AGRE). The results appear in the online journal PLOS-ONE

Misdirected immune response
The body’s immune system produces antibodies to eliminate substances it deems dangerous. Allergies and sensitivities can result when the immune system mistakes a harmless substance for such an “invader.” Along these lines, the new findings likewise support growing evidence that immune system irregularities are common among individuals with autism.

“By themselves, these antibodies do not mean disease,” comments Dan Coury, M.D., medical director of Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network. Dr. Coury is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, in Columbus, Ohio. “However, when high levels occur with other symptoms, we begin to get a clearer picture,” he says. “This line of research may eventually identify subgroups of individuals with autism who will benefit from specific treatments.”

Autism Speaks-AGRE families make research possible
The study, by researchers at Columbia University Medical Center, looked at the blood, genes and medical records of 64 children participating in Autism Speaks AGRE research repository. Thirty-seven had autism. The rest were unaffected siblings.  Diagnostic testing by trained AGRE staffers ensured that the children’s autism diagnoses were reliable and rigorous. The researchers compared the AGRE information and samples to those of 76 children in families not affected by autism.

“Through resources such as AGRE, Autism Speaks is partnering with families to accelerate the pace of research,” says Clara Lajonchere, Ph.D., Autism Speaks vice president for clinical programs. “Thanks to AGRE specimens and clinical information, these researchers could speedily conduct their experiments and test their ideas.”

AGRE genetic information also allowed the researchers to look for genes associated with celiac disease. An autoimmune disorder, celiac disease can be triggered by gluten. Earlier research had been mixed on any association between autism and celiac disease. This study found no such connection.

Further research needed
“This is the first study to systematically look at serologic and genetic markers of celiac disease and gluten sensitivity in such well-characterized cohorts of autism patients and controls,” says study co-author Peter Green, M.D. The findings need to be confirmed with larger studies, he agrees. In particular, the authors call for further research to understand the significance of gluten antibodies. Though they don’t necessarily indicate disease, their link to gastrointestinal symptoms suggests an associated problem.

Autism Speaks is funding a number of studies looking into autism’s association with GI issues. You can explore these and other Autism Speaks-supported research using this website’s Grant Search.

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