Engineering and autism: Chemical engineer investigates autism spectrum disorders

March 5, 2013 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.

Explore further: Team discovers potential blood test for autistic patients

More information:

Related Stories

Team discovers potential blood test for autistic patients

January 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 ...

From 'Refrigerator Mothers' to untangling the genetic roots of autism

March 7, 2012
With the "Refrigerator Mother" notion about the cause of autism a distant and discredited memory, scientists are making remarkable progress in untangling the genetic roots of the condition, which affects millions of children ...

Bacteria in the gut of autistic children different from non-autistic children

January 9, 2012
The underlying reason autism is often associated with gastrointestinal problems is an unknown, but new results to be published in the online journal mBio on January 10 reveal that the guts of autistic children differ from ...

Autism risk gene linked to differences in brain structure

March 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 for autism. ...

Children with autism and gastrointestinal symptoms have altered digestive genes

September 17, 2011
Researchers at the Center for Infection and Immunity (CII) at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health and at the Harvard Medical School report that children with autism and gastrointestinal disturbances have ...

Mathematical model unlocks key to brain wiring

May 10, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- A new mathematical model predicting how nerve fibres make connections during brain development could aid understanding of how some cognitive disorders occur.

Recommended for you

Late-breaking mutations may play an important role in autism

July 17, 2017
A study of nearly 6,000 families, combining three genetic sequencing technologies, finds that mutations that occur after conception play an important role in autism. A team led by investigators at Boston Children's Hospital ...

Females with autism show greater difficulty with day-to-day tasks than male counterparts

July 14, 2017
Women and girls with autism may face greater challenges with real world planning, organization and other daily living skills, according to a study published in the journal Autism Research.

Researchers investigate possible link between carnitine deficiency and autism

July 13, 2017
Researchers are always looking for new clues to the causes of autism, with special emphasis on prevention or treatment. At Baylor College of Medicine, Dr. Arthur Beaudet has been following clinical and genetic clues in patients ...

How children look at mom's face is influenced by genetic factors and altered in autism

July 12, 2017
New research has uncovered compelling evidence that genetics plays a major role in how children look at the world and whether they have a preference for gazing at people's eyes and faces or at objects.

Oxytocin improves social abilities in some kids with autism, study finds

July 10, 2017
Children with autism showed improved social behavior when treated with oxytocin, a hormone linked to social abilities, according to a new study by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Children with low ...

Possible early diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder

June 29, 2017
Measuring a set of proteins in the blood may enable earlier diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to a study from the Peter O'Donnell Jr. Brain Institute at UT Southwestern Medical Center.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

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.
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.