Researchers at Columbia may be making strides toward understanding the neurological disorder of autism–starting with, of all places, the intestine, according to a recent study.
Dr. Brent Williams, an associate research scientist from the Mailman School of Public Health, headed the study, which examined gastrointestinal disturbances in children with autism. Researchers discovered that children diagnosed with autism that suffer from gastrointestinal disturbances have heightened levels of Sutterella, a type of intestinal bacteria.
After examining intestinal biopsies from his patients, Williams found that Sutterella bacteria existed in more than half of the children who had been diagnosed with autism. In comparison, Sutterella was not found in any normally developing children that also had gastrointestinal, or GI, disturbances.
“There have been reports relating to the prevalence of GI disturbances in children with autism, and those reports have been somewhat inconsistent,” Williams said. “One of the questions that is important to look at is whether the molecular underpinnings of the GI symptoms differ between children with autism and typically developing children.”
Although the correlation between autism and gastrointestinal dysfunction has been explored before, “the link between gastrointestinal and central nervous system dysfunction remains unclear,” according to Mady Hornig, researcher and associate professor of epidemiology.
“Gastrointestinal complaints are a prominent cause of concern and distress among children with autism and their caregivers,” Hornig explained. “Our approach allows us to rigorously investigate whether specific clinical and molecular patterns in the gastrointestinal tract are associated with neuropsychiatric disease.”
Williams and Hornig both said that they plan to work on future studies that delve more deeply into the relationship between GI disturbances and autism.
“We are exploring larger prospective studies where we could control for many factors that could be playing a role in the specific changes,” Williams said. “There is much work to be done toward understanding the role Sutterella plays in autism.”
Hornig added that to test the strength of the correlation, she hopes to expand the research to sample from a larger pool of patients.
“If we saw a close correlation, we would have a better time in accessing a larger population because not everyone will have serious GI disorders to bring to colonoscopy,” she said. “We could study larger populations in a more rapid fashion.”
Dr. Andrew Gerber, co-director of the developmental neuropsychiatry program at the Columbia University Medical Center, highlighted the importance of continued exploration of autism in similar studies, noting that researchers have “not yet put together the larger picture.”
“The field of autism research has really exploded over the last 10 to 15 years,” he said. “What has not advanced significantly, because it is so complicated, is the [understanding of] underlying biological processes.”
Williams stressed that Columbia is at the forefront of the field of autism research. “We are trying to set the bar for the work that needs to be done,” he said.