Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are both names for a group of symptoms, syndromes and disorders that are all related to brain development. Autism presents in hundreds of different ways, as the saying goes, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” That is why it’s referred to as a spectrum; there is a wide range of disorders and manifestations of it. While it may look different in different patients, it’s common for those who have autism to have difficulty with social interaction, verbal and non-verbal cues, communication and repetitive behaviors like hand flapping or other self-stimulating movements. There is no known cause or cure so research into this area of neuroscience is crucial.
The latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control put the prevalence of autism at 1 in every 45 children. A new study from the University of Missouri School of Medicine looked at another common factor in autism, that of gastrointestinal issues. Their research suggests that the stomach issues many children on the spectrum suffer from maybe related to stress. Patients with autism often have a hard time processing stressful situations and stomach trouble is a common ailment in stress related diseases as well as in autism.
David Beversdorf, MD, associate professor in the departments of radiology, neurology and psychological sciences at MU and the MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders said in a press release, "We know that it is common for individuals with autism to have a more intense reaction to stress, and some of these patients seem to experience frequent constipation, abdominal pain or other gastrointestinal issues. To better understand why, we looked for a relationship between gastrointestinal symptoms and the immune markers responsible for stress response. We found a relationship between increased cortisol response to stress and these symptoms."
Cortisol is often referred to as the “stress hormone” since it is released by the body in times of stress, such as the fight or flight response, a traumatic event or in patients with anxiety disorders. It does have a purpose, it’s supposed to prevent other substances in the body, cytokines, from being released and causing inflammation of tissues. The recent research involved 120 pediatric patients with autism who were treated at MU and Vanderbilt University. Parents completed a questionnaire detailing any gastrointestinal issues their children had. After they numbers were tallied, two groups were formed, 51 patients who had stomach issues and 69 who reported no significant gastrointestinal complaints.
Each child was given a 30-second stress test to provoke a stress response that would trigger cortisol production. Samples from the children were obtained via salivary sampling before and after the test. The children in the group who reported gastrointestinal symptoms had higher levels of cortisol production after the test than those without stomach issues.
Patients with autism who have chronic constipation are often treated with laxatives to avoid blockages and discomfort but the results of Beverdorf’s research suggest that more attention needs to be paid to cortisol levels and the accompanying stress. Autism is a disorder of the brain, and since the brain controls stress reactivity, looking beyond the gastrointestinal tract would be a logical avenue to pursue when treating patients who have an ASD and suffer from gastrointestinal distress on a regular basis.
The study, “Associations between Cytokines, Endocrine Stress Response, and Gastrointestinal Symptoms in Autism Spectrum Disorder,” was recently published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, the journal of the Psychoneuroimmunology Research Society. Check out the video below to learn more.