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What projects are being funded in autism research? Part 1: vaccines and GI issues

Posted Jul 22 2012 11:50pm

The Office of Autism Research Coordination (OARC) rolled out a new web-based tool to explore research projects in autism. The IACC/OARC Autism Spectrum Disorder Research Portfolio Analysis Web Tool has already been discussed here at Left Brain/Right Brain, but I thought it was worth doing some exploring using the tool. In particular, let’s see what, if anything, is happening in some of the “hot button” issues from some segments of the online parent community.

I put in simple search terms. First was “gastrointestinal”. I found 11 projects ongoing in 2009 and 14 projects being funded in 2010. There is some overlap between the two years (as you would expect), and some projects mention the term “gastrointestinal” but are not focused on the topic (for example, this project on treating sleep issues in autistic children). But this project, Analysis of the small intestinal microbiome of children with autism , would seem to be right on target for what many parents are asking for. As is Novel probiotic therapies for autism . Much of the discussion of gastrointestinal function in autistics seems to be focused on the “leaky gut” theory. I would think that this study (noted in detail below) would be of particular interest to many.

Are autism spectrum disorders associated with leaky-gut at an early critical period in development?

Although there is general consensus of greater prevalence of gastrointestinal (GI) distress in individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), the nature of the link is unknown. There is preliminary evidence to suggest that GI distress in ASD may be associated with “Leaky-Gut” (i.e., increased permeability of the intestinal mucosal barrier due to either delayed or abnormal development), as shown by a study showing higher-than-normal prevalence in ASD children 4 – 16 years of age (e.g., D’Eufemia et al., 1996). During normal digestion, the mucosal barrier is responsible for keeping digestive enzymes out of the intestinal wall. Recent evidence shows that if these powerful degrading enzymes enter the wall of the intestine, they will cause major damage to the intestinal wall as well as inflammation in the brain. Investigators hypothesize that ASD may be associated with Leaky-Gut early in development, which combines, or interacts, with diet (breast-milk, formula, solid foods) leading to intestinal wall damage and inflammation in: 1) the intestine, which could explain the GI distress, and 2) in the bloodstream, which could reach and damage the developing brain, thus contributing to the onset of ASD itself. In this study, researchers will track key aspects of GI function in Low-Risk and “High-Risk” infants (i.e., infants who have an older sibling diagnosed with ASD), including: 1) signs of Leaky-Gut, 2) symptoms of GI distress (e.g., diarrhea, reflux, constipation), 3) diet (breast-milk vs. formula), and 4) evidence of digestive enzymes and inflammatory markers of cell death in the bloodstream. They will correlate GI, diet, and inflammatory measures with results from cognitive, visual, and behavioral tests, including standard ASD diagnostic tests, at two and three years of age to determine if Leaky-Gut is associated with the development of ASD.

How about vaccines? Four projects in 2009 , four in 2010 . Three of those projects are the same from 2009 to 2010, and those three are funded by Autism Speaks. Two are funded by the Federal Government: Vaccine safety datalink thimerosol and autism study and A primate model of gut, immune, and CNS response to childhood vaccines . The second of those projects is, I believe, a follow-on study to the Laura Hewitson primate study (many supporters of that work complain that there has been no follow on to it)

While we are at it, there are four studies mentioning “mercury” in 2009, nine in 2010 (granted, in 2010 research funded by SafeMinds was added to the database. As they are a major proponent of the mercury hypothesis, it isn’t surprising that four of these studies were funded by them).

I am reminded of past criticisms about environmental risk factors levied at the IACC. In past years there was a discussion point that the IACC Strategic Plan did not include an emphasis on environmental risk factors for autism. A simple review of the strategic plan showed this not to be the case. Oddly enough, one could not find discussion of the facts on the websites of those claiming to be calling for environmental risk factor research, only here at Left Brain/Right Brain .

It has also been discussed here that the IACC does not control the research budgets and no direct control over what projects actually get funded. The IACC is an advisory committee. The fact that most research project items in the Strategic Plan do get funded suggests that the IACC is an effective advisory group.


by Matt Carey

note: I serve as a public member to the IACC, but my opinions and comments (even those about the IACC) are my own.



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