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Another autism-GI link: Inflammatory bowel disease

Harvard researchers document significantly higher rates of Crohn's and ulcerative colitis among those with autism
October 07, 2015

Harvard researchers are reporting high rates of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) in children and adults with autism. IBD includes such painful and potentially life-threatening disorders as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.

The findings, which appear in the journal Inflammatory Bowel Disease, add to the growing evidence of autism’s mysterious gut-brain connection.

Autism Speaks is funding a number of ongoing studies on autism’s gut-brain connection. Learn more about them here.

For decades, parents and then scientists have reported that gastrointestinal distress is very common among children with autism. Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network (ATN) has helped develop guidelines on the medical management of such issues as chronic constipation and diarrhea in children with autism.

The new findings go further in establishing a link to extremely serious GI disorders unlikely to be caused by autism-related behavioral issues involving food or toileting.

Harvard bioinformatics researcher Isaac Kohane, computer scientist Finale Doshi-Velez and colleagues analyzed three large healthcare databases in the largest-ever study to look for an IBD-autism connection.

This included:
* more than 7 million patients in a nationwide Aetna insurance database, including more than 52,000 with autism, 

* more than 600,000 patients seen at Boston Children’s Hospital, including 7,201 children with autism, and

* more than 200,000 medical records from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, including 1,555 patients with autism.

Rates of IBD varied with age and across the databases, but they remained consistently higher for patients who had autism than for patients without autism across all age groups. (See figures below.)

Autism Speaks Head of Medical Research Paul Wang comments:

“Data from our ATN and other research groups have long shown that GI problems such as constipation, diarrhea, abdominal pain and esophagitis are very common among children with autism. This new research provides strong evidence that IBD is likewise more common in children with autism than in other children.

“IBD can cause severe discomfort and medical complications,” Dr. Wang emphasizes. “This is an issue that physicians must consider when evaluating children with autism and GI symptoms, or with unexplained pain or behavior issues.”

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