The Connection Between Autism & the Gut

Up to 71% of children with autism suffer from gastrointestinal issues. The cause of these symptoms, such as constipation, diarrhea, or abdominal discomfort, are unknown. However, researchers believe they may have found a clue.

Scientists have discovered a specific gene mutation that affects neuron communication in the brain and causes dysfunction in the gut.

The mutation changes the physical bond between neurons that keep them physically close to one another. This mutation affects gut contractions, the number of neurons in the small intestine, the speed at which food moves through the small intestine, and responses to a critical neurotransmitter important in autism.

While this specific mutation is rare, it is one of more than 150 autism-related gene mutations that alter neuronal connections.

"We know the brain and gut share many of the same neurons, and now, for the first time, we've confirmed that they also share autism-related gene mutations," says Chief Investigator Associate Professor Elisa Hill-Yardin, RMIT University.

This research confirms suspicions of this connection brought forth in 2003. Researchers studied two brothers with autism and identified this specific gene mutation as a cause of their neurodevelopmental disorder. Throughout the study, the researchers also took detailed notes on the brothers’ gastrointestinal issues and noticed a correlation.

"The link we've confirmed suggests a broader mechanism, indicating that the mutations that affect connections between neurons could be behind the gut problems in many patients," Hill-Yardin said.

Scientists hope these findings help will better us understand the gut-brain connection and improve medications for gastrointestinal issues.

New research is finding that how we thought our genes are governed is changing. In the old model, the effects of our genes were fixed and not subject to change. The belief was that if genes were mutated, then there was no way to alter that.

However, the new genetic model now shows a more fluid, dynamic matrix where our genes can respond and change. It is now apparent that through lifestyle alterations, such as a healthier diet and the consumption of key nutritional compounds, we can trigger major effects that exert beneficial effects via our genes. Scientists are finding that a healthy diet, regular exercise, sufficient sleep, and stress reduction techniques — all well-known for improving the body’s health — can also help to create major shifts in the speed and extent of change in our genes. 

The next frontier in creating superior health may be more discoveries about how we can deeply change our gene deck and how lasting these changes may be as well as how much control we have over individual genes. This is an exciting time where we are beginning to realize that we are not necessarily stuck with “biology as destiny” and that we can initiate many positive changes in our own gene deck for better outcomes.