Sunday, January 4, 2015

Gut Feeling

Because so much is unknown about autism, parents of children with autism often rely upon what we sense is the right thing to do when we make decisions for our children. We sometimes think of those instincts as gut feelings, and we move forward based upon the adages of “Go with your gut” or “Trust your gut.” Because my faith leads me to believe that God places those feelings in my gut, I trust those instincts when making choices. While we tend to think of the gut in terms of its actual function as a key component of the digestive process as well as its symbolic identity as a part of decision-making, the role of the gut has expanded in recent research.

More specifically, new research indicates that the gut’s microorganisms (such as bacteria), known as the microbiome, significantly impact the brain. In the article “Gut-brain Link Grabs Neuroscientists” published in Nature on November 12, 2014, molecular biologist Sara Reardon explains that research shows that a connection exists between bacteria in the gut and behavioral conditions, such as autism. [To read this article, please click here.]

In 2014, the U.S. National Institutes of Health spent more than one million dollars on new research through its Human Microbiome Project to study the links between the microbiome and the brain. Through this research project, scientists hope to gain insights into how the microbiome affects humans as it both maintains health and causes disease. On November 19, 2014, neuroscientists shared their research entitled “Gut Microbes and the Brain: Paradigm Shift in Neuroscience” at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting in Washington, D.C., promoting the significance of the brain-gut connection.

As neuroscientists begin to understand how gut bacteria affect the brain, three possible links have arisen. First, the gut bacteria seem to play a significant role in the immune system. Another potential link between the gut and brain is the vagus nerve that connects the digestive tract to the brain. In addition, the production of bacterial waste in the gut may affect the brain. For example, intestinal bacteria produce the important neurotransmitter GABA. Interestingly, children with autism often benefit from taking supplements of GABA, as it has a calming effect upon them.

Research has shown that children with autism tend to have gut microbiomes different from typical children. Specifically, the Nature article references a 2013 study entitled “Reduced Incidence of Prevotella and Other Fermenters in Intestinal Microflora of Autistic Children.” [To read this article, please click here.] This research focused upon analyzing stool samples of children with autism and typical children and found that children with autism tended to have fewer strains of gut bacteria than typical children do. Consequently, these missing strains likely influence their behavior and health. Moreover, the study found that children with autism had significantly lower levels of some strains of bacteria, particularly Prevotella, which is important for digesting carbohydrates and for metabolizing vitamin B1. Considering that many children with autism seem to crave carbohydrates, perhaps this lack of Prevotella causes them to consume carbohydrate-rich diets, trying to extract nutrients from these foods. In addition, children with autism often respond well to supplementation of vitamin B1, perhaps necessary because their bodies cannot metabolize this vitamin from food. By analyzing the gut bacteria, scientists can potentially determine what is lacking and how to address these anomalies.

Additionally, the Nature article refers to the work of Sarkis Mazmanian, a microbiologist at California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. In Mazmanian’s 2013 study, mice with some features of autism, notably gastrointestinal symptoms and stressed, antisocial behaviors, had lower levels of a common gut bacterium, Bacteroides fragilis, than normal. Also, they had higher levels of a bacterial metabolite, 4EPS, in their blood. When normal mice with leaky gut syndrome were injected with 4EPS, which seeped into the body through the intestinal wall, they also exhibited autistic behaviors.

In response to his research, Dr. Mazmanian notes, “That observation raises the possibility that some people with autism could be supplemented with therapies, such as probiotics, that target the gut instead of the brain, which is a much more complex and inaccessible organ.” Hence, this research offers a different approach to autism; instead of focusing upon treating the neurological symptoms, addressing the digestive tract becomes a potential source for healing. Indeed, many biomedical doctors have recognized the gut-brain connection in autism and have implemented treatments to address digestive issues, such as leaky gut and dysbiosis of the digestive tract, through gluten-free diets, probiotic supplements, and antifungal medications.

As we begin a new year, we anticipate what 2015 will bring. Over time, we have seen progress in Alex that we celebrate and appreciate. Nonetheless, we continue to pray for his complete healing, and this new research gives us greater reason to hope that, indeed, Alex will recover what autism has taken from him. In the meantime, I trust my gut and allow myself to be led by God that we will make the right choices so that Alex can be happy and healthy as we wait.

“My child, pay attention to what I say. Listen carefully to my words. Don’t lose sight of them. Let them penetrate deep into your heart, for they bring life to those who find them, and healing to their whole body.” Proverbs 4:20-22

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