Autism and gastrointestinal issues: Expert elucidates the gut-brain connection

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New Delhi: Autism is a collection of genetically variant neurodevelopmental disorders that manifest as early social intercourse dysfunction. The condition can lead to impaired repetitive behaviours. Most commonly, autistic people are likely to suffer from gastrointestinal (GI) diseases as compared to the general population, according to a report from Harvard Medical School. They are quite difficult to identify and diagnose in adults with autism. Some of the symptoms of autism include, mild to severe stomachaches and persistent vomiting.

On World Autism Awareness Day, Dr Priyanka Madaan, MD, DM Pediatric Neurologist, Amrita Hospital, Faridabad shared with News9, “Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterised by deficits in social communication and interaction and restricted repetitive behaviours. Children with ASD are known to experience an array of gastrointestinal symptoms such as abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhoea, bloating, and gastroesophageal reflux disease.”

Predominantly a brain-related condition, recent research suggests its potential link with the gut highlighting the concept of the brain axis. The gut-brain axis is a communication system linking the central nervous system (CNS) with the enteric nervous system (ENS) of the GI tract. Its various pathways include hormonal, neural, and immunological signalling. Dysregulation within this axis can affect neurological and GI processes and has been associated with the development or exacerbation of ASD symptoms.

Gut-Brain Connection

There are several proposed hypotheses for the potential link between gut and ASD. First, ASD has been associated with an imbalance in the gut microbiome, characterised by decreased microbial diversity and an overgrowth of potentially harmful bacteria. This, in turn, leads to inflammation, immune dysfunction, and abnormal neurotransmitter signalling thereby impacting brain function.

Second, immune system dysregulation and intestinal permeability (leaky gut) are other important players in the relationship between ASD and GI disturbances. Increased intestinal permeability allows the passage of harmful substances through the gut barrier to the bloodstream, potentially triggering immune responses and inflammation that could affect the CNS.

While the gut-brain connection in the context of autism and GI issues is a promising area of research, the literature on the subject is limited. Future studies are needed to elucidate the underlying mechanisms and design effective interventions such as probiotics. Further understanding of the complex concept of the brain axis might revolutionise the management of ASD through novel therapeutic approaches.

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