Gastrointestinal issues and the role of the gut microbiota in children with autism spectrum disorder
Narvaez, Maria Jose
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Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized by deficits in social communication and interaction as well as by repetitive patterns of behavior. It is thought to affect 1 in 68 children in the United States, yet researchers do not know what causes it and treatments are primarily focused on alleviating symptoms associated with ASD rather than treating any underlying cause. Various theories have been proposed over the years regarding what causes ASD in the hopes of finding effective treatment options. One of these theories, and the topic of this work, is that the intestinal bacteria play a role in the development of autism. The idea that gut bacteria may play a role in health and disease is one that has been gaining increased interest lately, and this has spread to the field of autism research. Reports of children with ASD suffering from gastrointestinal (GI) issues are widespread, and even the first reports of children with ASD mentioned that some of them experienced GI symptoms or had issues with feeding. While GI symptoms are uncomfortable for any child, they pose special circumstances for those with ASD because these children are likely unable to effectively communicate what they are experiencing. This thesis will first review the prevalence of GI issues in children with ASD as well as discuss studies that have examined if there is a difference between the gut bacteria of children with ASD compared to neurotypical children. As will be shown, many studies have in fact found a significant difference, but these differences vary across studies and a consensus has not been reached. Following this, the link between the gut bacteria and the brain, as well as how this relates to ASD will be discussed. Then, an overview of various treatment studies aimed at targeting the gut bacteria in animal models of ASD as well as in children with ASD will be analyzed. While this field of research is certainly exciting, there is still a lot of work to be done by researchers. For one, the wide range of methodologies used and populations studied introduces variables that could be skewing the results and contributing to the lack of agreement between researchers regarding what bacterial strains might be relevant to ASD. Additionally, just because there is a correlation between certain bacterial strains and ASD does not mean it can be assumed that this is causing the development of ASD in so many children. Nonetheless, the fact that some treatment studies have led to improvements in ASD-related behaviors when targeting the gut bacteria of children indicates that this field of research is worthy of attention and continued support.
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