Engineering and autism: Chemical engineer investigates autism spectrum disorders

by Karen B. Roberts

(Medical Xpress)—The University of Delaware's Prasad Dhurjati is a chemical engineer whose background includes systems engineering, biotechnology and artificial intelligence. Yet recently, he has been investigating autism spectrum disorders, neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by cognitive, behavioral and social impairments.

Autism, he explains, has been cited as being linked to and is thought to be caused by a combination of and other environmental factors.

After analyzing the available literature, Dhurjati, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, realized that researchers often studied the digestive bacteria and other causes of autism separately. He wondered if a approach—focusing on how the parts connect to the whole system—could be used to model the connectivity of key contributors to the development of .

" build reactors to convert chemical molecules into useful products, but when you think about it, one of the best reactors is what I call the human body's gut reactor—the digestive system," Dhurjati explains. "It contains thousands of bacterial microbes and cells; it derives energy and nutrients from food and excretes waste. But what happens if one or more of the hierarchical connections in this complex ecosystem breaks or becomes damaged? How does that affect the disease process?"

Dhurjati is working to map out these connections with Myron Sasser, a former UD professor of , whose work involved investigating microbes that cause diseases in plants.

In 1991, Sasser founded Microbial Identification Incorporated (MIDI), a based in Newark, Del. MIDI has developed a database of over 5,000 unique signatures to identify microorganisms.

Their model proposes a circular relationship between digestive system bacteria, oxidative stress and intestinal permeability. Key bacterial players could include desulfovibrio, bifidobacteria and clostridia.

While it is certain that these aren't the only connections to be made, Dhurjati believes a multifaceted approach and combination treatment to address all factors at once may produce better results and minimize inter-related effects.

He says that the next step is to make the model more quantitative, so that variables can be added or taken away and the associated effects measured. He believes feedback from others in academia, industry or health care could lead to an improved hybrid computer model that would enable simulation and testing on a "virtual patient."

"There are many unanswered questions; we are simply raising questions of connectivity from the systems level in hopes of inspiring others to rethink their approach and continue to study this problem from different vantage points," he says.

To learn more, read the article by Colin A. Heberling, Dhurjati and Sasser published in the March 2013 issue of Journal of Medical Hypotheses, a publication of Elsevier.

More information: dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.mehy.2012.11.044

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Team discovers potential blood test for autistic patients

Jan 29, 2013

(Medical Xpress)—Results of a recent clinical study by researchers from Western and the University of Arkansas reveal the presence of a unique blood marker, which may further the understanding of possible gut linked environmental ...

Autism risk gene linked to differences in brain structure

Mar 21, 2012

Healthy individuals who carry a gene variation linked to an increased risk of autism have structural differences in their brains that may help explain how the gene affects brain function and increases vulnerability ...

Recommended for you

Helping autistic kids read, write and communicate

Dec 04, 2014

The boy is delighted. You can see it in his eyes—his enthusiasm for the task, his pride in his ability. Indeed, Max has good reason to be proud: At age three, he is reading. And at this precise moment, ...

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

loneislander
1 / 5 (1) Mar 05, 2013
Autism is not a _dis_order.

I am autistic. It (no semantics) is a _different_order.

Ignorance = fear (except in the powerless where it = bliss) and to call something a "disorder" because it isn't _like you_ is up there with defending slavery because its allowed in the bible and (I should add) like saying the bible is divinely inspired any more than a symphony movement (or bowel movement - depending on how much relief and 'restoration' it brings).

This is supposed to be a scientific forum; let's then be scientists about things. Please.
zombieapocalypsekitten
5 / 5 (1) Mar 05, 2013
Autism is not a _dis_order.

I am autistic. It (no semantics) is a _different_order.


Hmmm, a "different order" that leaves a person incapable of interacting in the world and/or supporting themselves still needs a cure. There is a point when a person should leave the nest and provide for themselves. The last stat I read indicated that 90% of Aspergers can't hold a job. That needs a cure let alone the pain of S.I. issues.

As a mother of a child with severe autism, and a person who is probably autistic herself, drop your precious snowflake crap. You're only hurting other autistic persons.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.