June 24, 2013 — Children with autism have elevated antibodies to gluten compared to children who don't have the often-devastating brain disorder, and those antibodies appear to be linked to gastrointestinal symptoms in the affected children, a new study finds.
The study, published last week in the medical journal PLOS One, didn't find any connection between the elevated antibodies and celiac disease. It may, however, lend credence to the theory that some children with autism suffer from non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
"The IgG antibody response to gluten does not necessarily indicate sensitivity to gluten or any disease-causing role for the antibodies in the context of autism," study author Armin Alaedini, Ph.D., assistant professor of medical sciences at Columbia University Medical Center, said in a statement.
"But the higher levels of antibody to gluten and their association with gastrointestinal symptoms point to immunologic and/or intestinal permeability abnormalities in the affected children," he said.
Some parents long have maintained that dietary interventions — most commonly the gluten-free, casein-free diet — have helped or even cured their children with autism, and some physicians who treat autistic patients routinely place their patients on such a diet.
However, studies on the issue have been mixed, with a few showing a benefit but most not. Top celiac disease and gluten sensitivity researcher Dr. Alessio Fasano told me recently that he believes there might be a subset of autistic patients that would benefit from a gluten-free diet, and new testing techniques for gluten sensitivity could indicate who might benefit.
In the PLOS One study, the researchers looked at 37 children diagnosed with autism, 27 of their unaffected siblings, and 76 unrelated children without autism. All were tested for AgA-IgG antibodies to gluten, which are not considered specific to celiac disease.
The children who had autism had significantly higher levels of AgA-IgG antibody when compared with the unrelated children. The autistic children also had higher levels of IgG when compared to their unaffected siblings, but those results didn't reach statistical significance.
Finally, the autistic children who had gastrointestinal symptoms — more than 70% of the total — had higher AgA-IgG antibodies than those without such symptoms, the study found.
"The heightened immune response to gluten in autism deserves further attention and research in determining its utility as a source of biomarkers and clues regarding disease pathophysiology," the study concluded. "Better understanding of this immune response may offer novel markers for the identification of subsets of patients who would be responsive to specific treatment strategies."