Understanding the Link Between Brain and Gut

Published on 
October 29, 2014

Did you know that nearly 40 percent of children with autism also have gastrointestinal (GI) disorders? These disorders can range from chronic diarrhea to irritable bowel syndrome, but an estimated 80 percent of the co-afflicted children experience severe constipation. Unable to communicate their distress, some of these children may “act out” in response to their discomfort. In the largest study of its kind to date, Pat Levitt, PhD, Simms/Mann Chair in Developmental Neurogenetics at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, will see if treating chronic constipation can help improve the behavioral symptoms associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

“This study will take a completely novel look at how constipation correlates with severity of autism symptoms and related behavioral issues,” said Levitt, who is also W.M. Keck Provost Professor in Neurogenetics, Pediatrics, Neuroscience, Pharmacy, Psychiatry, Pathology and Psychology at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California. “We want to see if successful GI treatment helps children with ASD become more receptive to interventions that target social communication challenges that they have.”

In addition to providing care to help relieve and treat constipation, Levitt and colleagues will also measure levels of the biochemical isoprostane in patients. A marker of oxidative stress (which indicates cell damage), isoprostane has previously shown to be elevated in patients with both ASD and severe constipation. After measuring levels over one year, “the results will show us if isoprostane is a reliable biomarker for severe GI disorders in these children, who often can’t communicate to their parents or doctor that they are experiencing abdominal pain,” says Levitt.

Through both aspects of this study, researchers hope to better understand the relationship between constipation and behavior, and use this knowledge to improve treatments for children with autism and GI disorders.

Parents or physicians wishing to receive more information about enrolling a child in the study can email tummytroubles@chla.usc.edu .

Funding for this study is provided by Autism Speaks.