Today, no effective drug therapies exist that address the core symptoms of autism spectrum disorders. Social communication deficits, repetitive behaviors, and altered sensory processing are the most highlighted symptoms observed in autism. As such, research has focused thus far on brain and behavioral mechanisms. However, one major underlying, and overlooked, symptom of autism is the presence of gastrointestinal disturbances. As many as 9 in 10 autistic children suffer from bowel inflammation, abdominal pain, constipation, and/or diarrhea. Such disturbances are linked to more severe behavioral abnormalities in autism, such as aggression, anxiety, and abnormal eating behavior. Despite the intense scrutiny of brain neural circuits associated with autism, the biological explanations, and of course therapies, remain largely absent. Here, I propose a radical approach to the problem. I propose to alter core behavioral symptoms of autism by manipulating gastrointestinal sensory processing. This proposal stems from recent discoveries in my laboratory, including a novel gut-to-brain sensory neural circuit that modulates eating behavior. We have formed a multidisciplinary research team that brings expertise in child behavioral psychology, pediatric gastroenterology, and gut-brain neural circuits. If successful, this approach will transform autism research and will open a path to manipulate certain behavioral disorders linked to visceral hypersensitivity from the gut.
This research grant project is relevant to public health because it provides a transformative avenue to modulate behavioral abnormalities linked to autism. The knowledge will serve to develop therapies for autism, a disease that affects 3.5 million U.S. citizens.