Changes in blood-brain barrier, intestinal permeability found in individuals with autism

January 18, 2017
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has the dubious distinction of being the fastest-growing developmental disability in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With 1 in every 68 children born in this country diagnosed with ASD, parents are looking everywhere for answers about best treatments. Along with selective medication to treat certain symptoms, traditional treatments include intensive behavioral approaches. But with no "one-size-fits-all" treatment approach, parents often turn to diverse complementary and alternative therapies.

Just as parents are looking for answers, scientists are trying to tease out the causes of this multifactorial and complex condition. "Although we are fairly certain that there is a genetic component, there are many pathways for an individual to arrive at autism's final destination," says Alessio Fasano, MD, director of the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and co-senior author of a study published in the journal Molecular Autism. "What might dispose one person to develop ASD - either pre- or post-natally - might have no such effect on another person," he adds.

Looking at the interconnectivity of the gut-brain axis - the biochemical signaling between the gastrointestinal and central nervous systems - researchers led by Maria Rosaria Fiorentino, PhD, of the Mucosal Immunology and Biology Research Center at MassGeneral Hospital for Children (MGHfC), have opened up a new avenue of research into the pathophysiology of ASD and other . "As far as we know, this is the first study to look at the molecular signature of blood-brain barrier dysfunction in ASD and schizophrenia in samples from human patients," says Fiorentino. In collaboration with researchers from the University of Maryland School of Medicine and others, Fiorentino's group found an altered blood-brain barrier in tissue samples from people with ASD when compared with healthy controls.

The group analyzed postmortem cerebral cortex and cerebellum tissues from 33 individuals - 8 with ASD, 10 with schizophrenia and 15 healthy controls. Altered expression of genes associated with blood-brain-barrier integrity and function and with inflammation was detected in ASD tissue samples, supporting the hypothesis that an impaired blood-brain barrier associated with neuroinflammation contributes to ASD.

In keeping with the hypothesis that the interplay within the gut-brain axis is a crucial component in the development of neurodevelopmental disorders, the group also analyzed intestinal epithelial tissue from 12 individuals with ASD and 9 without such disorders. That analysis revealed that 75 percent of the individuals affected by ASD had reduced expression of barrier-forming cellular components, compared with controls, and 66 percent showed a higher expression of molecules that increase .

The study was driven in part by the high number of gastrointestinal problems that occur in people with ASD. Although considered controversial by some health care practitioners, a gluten- and casein-free diet has been shown to produce some improvement in behavioral and gastrointestinal symptoms in a subgroup of children with ASD. "This is the first time anyone has shown that an altered blood-brain barrier and impaired intestinal barrier might both play a role in neuroinflammation in people with ASD," says Fiorentino.

Fasano adds, "As well as information on the , we were looking for more information on how increased intestinal permeability, otherwise known as a 'leaky gut,' might affect the development of ASD in the context of a dysfunctional gut-brain axis."

Fiorentino's next project involves looking more mechanistically at how microbiota - the collection of microorganisms in the gut - are linked with intestinal permeability and behavior. "There is definitely something going on between the gut and the brain with ASD and other neurodevelopmental disorders, and of course the microbiome has a big role to play," she says. "It has already been shown that ASD kids have an altered composition of gut microbial communities. If we can figure out what is required or missing, then maybe we can come up with a treatment that might be able to improve some of the behavioral issues and/or the gastrointestinal symptoms."

Explore further: Increased reaction to stress linked to gastrointestinal issues in children with autism

More information: Maria Fiorentino et al, Blood–brain barrier and intestinal epithelial barrier alterations in autism spectrum disorders, Molecular Autism (2016). DOI: 10.1186/s13229-016-0110-z

Related Stories

Gut microbiota influences blood-brain barrier permeability

November 19, 2014

A new study in mice, conducted by researchers at Sweden's Karolinska Institutet together with colleagues in Singapore and the United States, shows that our natural gut-residing microbes can influence the integrity of the ...

Recommended for you

Could flu during pregnancy raise risk for autism?

June 21, 2017

Researchers at the Center for Infection and Immunity (CII) at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health found no evidence that laboratory-diagnosis alone of maternal influenza during pregnancy is associated with ...

Treating autism by targeting the gut

June 19, 2017

Experts have called for large-scale studies into altering the make-up of bacteria in the gut, after a review showed that this might reduce the symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Until now, caregivers have relied ...

Autism risk linked to fever during pregnancy

June 13, 2017

Fever during pregnancy may raise the risk for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the child, according to a study led by scientists at the Center for Infection and Immunity (CII) at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

PeterVermont
not rated yet Jan 29, 2017
Vitamin D is a major up-regulator of proteins known to be involved in tight cell junctions which are an important part of biological barriers. This could be a partial mechanism that would explain the correlation between low vitamin D and risk or severity of autism.

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.