New Study: The Gut/Brain Axis and Autism

New Study: The Gut/Brain Axis and Autism post image

The new normal is our understanding that what is going on in the gut can influence the brain and other extra-intestinal areas of the body. The early research explored the commensal (good) bacteria that performs dozens of mutually beneficial processes such as, aiding in utilization of nutrients, production of vitamins, protection against pathogenic (bad) invaders, etc.

We have come to understand that an imbalance in the communitites of bacteria may cause some of the good microbes to turncoat and begin to introduce inflammation in the gut and beyond. This can lead to the devastating symptoms in the brain that comprise the autism spectrum.

Metchnikoff  – The First to Understand the Relationship between Gut Microbes and the Brain

Over one hundred years ago, Russian embryologist Elie Metchnikoff reported that a healthy colonic microbial community was intertwined with an

… immune system which is responsible for the control of dynamic self-maintenance, self-reparation, self-construction and self-optimization of an organism, and perpetual self-harmonization of the primarily imperfect and contradictory body under the conditions of permanent pressure of the environment. (source)

He suggested that a healthy microbial community could help combat senility. He emphasized that the friendly bacterial strains found in sour milk and yogurt would increase a person’s longevity.

The Microbiome Found to Influence the Brain

In 2011, Mazmanian et al reported that changes to the intestinal microbiome influence the brain. His research suggests that gut bacteria could affect neurological inflammation and trigger disease. It was not clear how that happened, however, Marmanian postulated that,

the microorganisms that colonize the human gut don’t leave the intestine, but the immune cells that contact them do…  although 70% of the immune cells in the body at any one time can be found in the intestine, they circulate throughout the body, and the microbiota of the gut environment help determine how immune cells will behave elsewhere… If T-cells, while in the gut, are programmed by the microbiota to have anti-inflammatory properties, then they may suppress inflammation even after they leave the gut.

It is now known that the proteins, carbohydrates, and other molecules shed by microbes also leave the gut and may play a role in signaling disease. It has been shown that these bacterial metabolites are in areas of the body that were previously thought to be free of bacteria; lungs, amniotic fluid and breast milk.

Studies suggest that there is a link between the gut/brain axis and neuropsychiatric disorders such as autism, depression, and eating disorders.

Understanding the Microbiome Leads to New and Safer Treatments

Deciphering  the function of the microbiome in disease may offer potential pathways to new and safer treatments. For example, researchers on the cutting edge of microbial therapy are experimenting with fecal transplantation to help restore healthy microbial communities in patients with inflammatory bowel disease.  This is turning out to be a simple, safe and cheap fix to a devastating disease.

Others are hopeful that microbiome studies will lead to therapies for a variety of diseases that have been associated with intestinal bacteria; immunological, metabolic, and neurological diseases.

One of the researchers is very optimistic and said,

From my perspective, it’s going to be easier to make and sustain changes to the [microbiota] of individuals than to come up with drugs to alter immune pathways… I believe that within a handful of years, in countries with high-quality medical care, we will start to see routine administration of well-defined combinations of bacteria to children to prevent autoimmune-mediated diseases. (source)

I am  hopeful that this will happen. It can happen as long as the FDA and Big Pharma can get over themselves and allow a cheap, safe and efficient treatment to develop. We can discuss why this won’t happen, but from what I can see, there is a lot of excitement on the part of researchers and clinicians (both holistic and allopathic) as well as pressure from patients who are desperate for this simple treatment.

The Microbiome and Autism

Parents of autistic children have been telling doctors for years that their children have gastrointestinal disorders. A study partially funded by Autism Speaks, and published in the peer reviewed Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders in 2013, shows that, indeed, gastrointestinal disorders are more prevalent in the autism community than in typical children.

Though it still remains controversial, Andrew Wakefield was the first gastrointestinal doctor to identify inflammation in the intestines of autistic children as far back as 1998.

Recently, the researchers at the UC Davis MIND Institute looked at a diverse group of 960 children in the Childhood Autism Risks from Genetics and the Environment (CHARGE) Study. The children were 2 to 5 years old when they enrolled; half were white, one-third Hispanic. and the remainder came from diverse backgrounds. Just over half (499) had a confirmed diagnosis of autism.

The children had a variety of gastrointestinal symptoms as reported by their parents via two separate questionnaires. One assessed GI symptoms such as abdominal pain, diarrhea and constipation. The other measured problem behaviors such as irritability, social withdrawal, repetitive behaviors and hyperactivity. They divided the groups into autism spectrum disorder, developmental disorders and typical children.

The researchers found that the parents of children with autism were six-to-eight times more likely to report that their children experienced frequent bloating, constipation, diarrhea and food sensitivities than were the parents of typically developing children.

Additionally, they found that the parents of children with autism and GI distress more frequently reported the neurological symptoms of irritability, social withdrawal, repetitive behavior and hyperactivity than did parents whose children with autism didn’t have GI symptoms.

This is clear evidence that the children on the autistic spectrum experience high rates of GI distress. Importantly, they also found an association between the severity of the gastrointestinal distress with neurological problems.

Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Rob Ring said,

This study brings forward evidence that adds further support to what parents have been telling the scientific community for years … Gastrointestinal dysfunction in autism is real.


The Gut and Psychology Syndrome addresses exactly this. The GAPS diet is a comprehensive healing protocol developed by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, a neurologist and nutritionist who specializes in the healing of autism spectrum disorders, ADD/ADHD, dyspraxia, dyslexia, bipolar and schizophrenia by treating the root cause, which is compromised gut flora.

This affects the immune system (80% of the immune system is in the gut) and can lead to a breakdown of the blood/brain barrier. Toxins may enter the brain and cause neurological (as in ASD) or psychological (as in bipolar, etc) symptoms.

I sincerely hope that one day soon, they will sponsor research that includes either the GAPS diet, the SCD diet, and/or the Paleo diet. The restrictions are difficult, but many parents with autistic children have taken the future of their children into their own hands and have brought their children out of the fog and into the light. Many have lost the diagnosis of autism – mainly through diet.

They deserve congratulations!

I would also love to see research with FMT and autism. FMT has already been used in children with ulcerative colitis and has been found to be 95% effective! It it can impact the gut in such a positive way with IBD, one has to imagine it would impact the inflamed gut of an autistic child in a similar way and may even lead to healing the brain.

What would you do if you had an autistic child? Would you pursue dietary treatments and advanced microbial treatments? Leave a comment and let me know!

Further Reading

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Shared at: Fight Back Friday

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Leave a Comment

  • Cassidy @ Cassidy's Craveable Creations March 27, 2014, 9:23 am

    My son has high functioning autism (recently changed to aspergers), tic disorder, oppositional defiance disorder, and epilepsy. We have been gluten and dairy free since June of 2009 and seen a dramatic improvement! He has terrible constipation and bloating, which we are still working on. I already cook Paleo but we still have gluten free processed snacks around the house and eat out at gluten free restaurants, which isn’t very healthy. I want to make the jump to 100% Paleo or GAPS, but find it very hard. I always read your posts and find them very helpful, keep up the great work!!!!

    • Jill March 27, 2014, 11:36 am

      Hi Cassidy,
      Thanks for your kind words! I think you are a great mom for all the work you are doing for your son and family!

  • Julie March 28, 2014, 10:28 am


    Thank you for writing about FMT and gut microbiota. FMT is not the silver bullet, but when used in combination to dietary changes and other nutritional support, the results are very impressive! Please continue to write articles about these topics to keep people thinking about how they can dramatically alter the course of their heath journey.