A quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

The Autism Research Review International is quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

Spring, 2018 | Number 2, Volume 32

Study identifies immune, GI differences in children with ASD

A new study reports that children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms have alterations in immune system regulation and gut microbiota. 

Destanie Rose and colleagues analyzed blood and stool samples from 103 children between 3 years and 12 years of age to assess the children’s immune responses and gut microbiota. The researchers divided the children into four groups: children with ASD who had GI symptoms, children with ASD who did not have GI symptoms, neurotypical children who had GI symptoms, and neurotypical children who did not have GI symptoms. The researchers found that: 

—Children with ASD and GI issues had higher levels of inflammatory cytokines, such as IL-5, IL-15, and IL-17, compared to children with ASD who did not have GI symptoms. 

—Children with ASD and GI symptoms had lower levels of TGFβ1, a protein that is responsible for regulating the body’s immune response. Rose notes that this makes these children more prone to inflammation. Interestingly, this protein was deregulated in children with ASD whether they had GI problems or not; this suggests, Rose and colleagues say, that the children without GI symptoms may have other inflammatory conditions such as allergies or asthma. 

—Children with ASD and GI symptoms had higher levels of zonulin, a protein that regulates cell junctions in the GI tract and influences intestinal permeability. A “leaky gut” allowing toxins to escape into the body where they can trigger chronic inflammation has been implicated as a factor in autism. 

—Children with ASD and GI symptoms had distinctly different gut microbiomes compared to neurotypical children with GI symptoms. Abnormal gut microbiota are also implicated in autism. 

Senior researcher Paul Ashwood comments, “Children with ASD with increased inflammation are often those who exhibit the most severe behaviors. This immune activation is not helping these children. It might not be causing autism—we don’t know that yet—but it’s certainly making things worse.” 

Editor’s note: We are thrilled to see another multidisciplinary research study. Although few, such studies are very much needed to thoroughly understand the underlying biology of autism.


“Differential immune responses and microbiota profiles in children with autism spectrum disorders and co-morbid gastrointestinal symptoms,” Destanie R. Rose, Houa Yang, Gloria Serena, Craig Sturgeon, Bing Ma, Milo Careaga, Heather K. Hughes, Kathy Angkustsiri, Melissa Rose, Irva Hertz-Picciotto, Judy Van de Water, Robin L. Hansen, Jacques Ravel, Alessio Fasano, and Paul Ashwood, Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, March 20, 2018 (online). Address: Paul Ashwood,  [email protected].


 “Immune system and gastrointestinal deregulation linked with autism,” news release, MIND Institute,  April 17, 2018.