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TSS Examines – The Revelations of Autism: A Gut-Brain Connection

by Laurenzo Overee

Perceived Symptoms or Real Problem?

Sudden gastric pains tend to occur during periods of distress. Sometimes physicians fail to convincingly explain some of thesymptoms. Such mystery has led to a pursuit of knowledge in the intricacies and mechanics of the gut, how they affect the mind, and vice-versa.  

Gastrointestinal health has been long associated with anxiety and other mental conditions, observed through physical reactions such as acute stomach problems prior to a stage performance and during other similarly stressful situations. 

As a result, healthcare practitioners have long suspected a link between the gut and brain. A recent discovery by researchers from RMIT University, led by Dr. Eisa Hill-Yardin, established relations between the neuronal structures of the brain and digestion through a series of pre-animal clinical trials. Based on the results of the latest examination, Dr. Hill-Yardin discovered that the neuroligin-3 R451C mutation affects neural communication in the brain and causes dysfunction in the gut. According to earlier studies, a large number of autism patients cope with some form of gut disorder, corroborating correlations between the mutations in gut and brain constituents. 

The latest research conducted by Dr. Hill-Yardin and her team collated findings from a 2003 study led by Dr. Christopher Gillberg from the University of Gothenburg on a pair of brothers who suffered from autism. The earlier research tied digestive processes, such as gut contractions, with the psychological condition of the brothers. The previously unpublished research results referenced mutations in cell-adhesion molecules, nicknamed “velcro,” as a possible factor leading to autism. This was the first time scientists were able to successfully pinpoint a genetic factor behind autism. 

Specific causes of autism remain elusive to healthcare practitioners, but the latest collective efforts of experts from several universities are working on a unified theory that will expand the understanding of gut-brain connections. The main hypothesis focuses on a set of neurons that exist in both the gut and brain areas of the body. The improvement of gut microbes may correlate with an improvement in mental development.

What We Know About Gut Connections

The microbiome is the diverse population of micro bacteria living within the gut of the human body. While traditionally linked to physical conditions like obesity, experts like Dr. Hill-Jardin and Dr. Gillberg have begun attributing gut health to the onset of psychological conditions. 

In children with ASD (autism spectrum disorder), symptoms of gut disorders are nearly four times as prevalent as compared to children without ASD. Additionally, food sensitivity is also more common in sufferers of ASD than those unaffected by the condition. 

Expert Dr. Kent Williams, a pediatric gastroenterologist, believes that the outward signs of aggression often displayed by children suffering from ASD could be a result of their inability to express the discomfort caused by constipation and other gastrological ailments. There is mounting concern that the prescription of psychotropic drugs for autism sufferers may cause side effects such as worsening gastrointestinal conditions of the patient since microbiome is closely linked through the enteric nervous system. 

However, the burning question remains: which comes first? Is the disruption of microbiome responsible for the problems manifested by the brain, or is it the other way around? Solving this conundrum may provide breakthroughs in treatment techniques. 

Aside from gut-brain links, a recent study from the University of Virginia’s Cancer Center suggests that women with gut microbiome disruptions face an increased risk in the metastatic spread of breast cancer. The gut disruption, known as dysbiosis, wasobserved to increase the replication of tumors in rats, regarding hormone-receptor positive breast cancer. In the experiment, animal subjects were given a strong dose of antibiotics, which led to an increased growth rate of tumor cells within the body, affecting areas like the lymph nodes and liver.

To corroborate the correlation between faulty gut and metastatic cancer, fecal microbiota was transplanted to rat subjects, which replicate the effects of compromised gut health in metastatic cancer spread patterns. This transplant method, known as Fecal Microbiota Transplantation (FMT), involves the transfer of a fecal matter solution from a donor to a recipient, altering microbial composition for research or medical purposes. 

The acquired results were the same, leading to a rise in tumour growth. 

Head researcher, Melanie Rutkowski states: “When we disrupted the microbiome’s equilibrium in mice by chronically treating them with antibiotics, it resulted in inflammation systemically and within the mammary tissue. In this inflamed environment, tumor cells were much more able to disseminate from the tissue into the blood and to the lungs, which is a major site for hormone receptor-positive breast cancer to metastasize.”

The study supports the speculation that compromised gut microbiome may lead to higher incidences of metastatic diseases. Current evidence suggests that gut bacteria affect multiple bodily systems and could be monitored as an effective indicator of overall health. Scientists may only be skimming the surface in GI tract research and treatment methods. 

Further Developments

In the future, experts may discover revolutionary treatments for autism, schizophrenia, and other psychological conditions by targeting the health of microbiome. As scientists continue to unravel the symbiotic connections between the gut and other parts of the body, greater medical emphasis may be placed on diets. Parents of ASD children have already begun specialized meal courses for their children, such as case-in and gluten-free diets, believing that such arrangements reduce the autistic symptoms of their children. However, the literature on the practice remains inconclusive with minimal results.  

Perhaps in the future, psychotropic medication and other methods that once provided temporary relief will be ultimately replaced by gut treatments that tackle the root cause of the psychological ailments.  

As Dr. Hill-Yardin describes her efforts: “Another promising path for future research is investigating how gene mutations in the nervous system relate with microbes in the gut. We know these microbes interact with the brain via the gut-brain axis, so could tweaking them improve mood and behaviour? While this wouldn’t reverse the gene mutation, we might be able to tone down its effects, and make a real difference in the quality of life for people with autism and their families.”

Professor Jim Adams, a researcher of autism from the Arizona State University, has taken a personal stance on the subject, being the father of a child diagnosed with ASD.

Professor Adams studied the correlation between autism and gut health from the results acquired in a mouse-modeled research conducted by a team of experts in California State University in 2013. The university team then followed up with a study that linked gut bacteria to Parkinson’s disease.  The team finally drew the conclusion that transplanting fecal matter from human autism sufferers to mice will cause ASD-related behavioural symptoms in the rodents.

Professor Adams applied the results of the three California State University studies to his own work on the effects of fecal transplant in children suffering from ASD. Gut expert Dr. Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown was consulted by Professor Adams to identify the bacteria in the 18 children aged between 7-18 who took part in his landmark study.

Special precautions were taken to ensure that the purified microbes from the heavily-screened gut donors were properly colonized in the gut of the children, with the ingestion of antibiotics and antacids that reduce stomach acid. Although there was little effect at the beginning of the experiment, which may be due to the compromised microbiomes through a condition called dysbiosis, the participants soon exhibited positive changes to their ASD symptoms.

Some scientists have questioned the findings of the study, pointing to possible problems such as the small sample size and the extant gastrointestinal distress in each participant, believing that the same success might not be noticed in ASD sufferers who suffer from less significant gut problems. However, Professor Adams and his team remain undeterred, having started on the second phase of their project: The production of the same microbial treatment in a compact pill form, which bypasses stomach acid for a more consistent effect to the gut. The team has tested the pill in other experiments, which have been proven a success. The discoveries by Professor Adams may pave the way for a transformational method in repairing damaged gut and providing alternative treatment for autism suffers;, however, caution is to be advised. 

There are other ongoing medical trials and developments in the sector of gut health, but some come with heavy risks. In a recent report by the FDA, Fecal Microbiota Transplantation led to the spread of a deadly infection in two recipients caused by an antibiotic-resistant bacteria strain, claiming the life of one patient.  

In hypothesis, fecal microbiota can help restore equilibrium to intestinal tracts that lack beneficial bacteria. FMT can help benefit people who suffer from diarrhoea caused by Clostridium difficile, treating up to 80-90% of cases. 

Due to the recently reported health scare, the FDA will implement more stringent criterion, determining that donors and their stools are to be screened for signs of antibiotic-resistant bacteria before approval is granted for any fecal transplant procedure.  

And what about CRISPR-Cas 9, the trending subject on genetic engineering? If genome-splicing enables the modification in specific snippets of DNA and is capable of achieving drastic changes to biology, scientists may eventually tap on revolutionary treatment options for individuals coping with compromised digestive systems by dealing with issues right from the cellular level of digestive organs.  

Behavioural experts may have been facing the wrong direction all this time, but the scientific landscape is shifting slowly, but surely, towards a focus on microbiome health.

The Starset Society

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