In some children with autism, levels of immune system antibodies to gluten
proteins are elevated, a new study shows.
The finding may have implications for the cause and treatment of
gastrointestinal troubles that often accompany autism spectrum disorders. Diets
excluding gluten have become popular in the autism community, but the
effectiveness of such diets has not been confirmed.
However, according to the new study, "there appears to be an increased immune
reactivity to gluten in children with autism, which is associated with
gastrointestinal symptoms", said lead researcher Armin Alaedini, an assistant
professor of medical sciences at Columbia University Medical Center in New York
The study did not find any link between autism and coeliac disease,
an autoimmune disorder that is triggered by gluten.
Gluten is found in many wheat and related grain products.
In the study, Alaedini's team reviewed the medical records and blood samples
of 140 children, 37 of whom had autism. Researchers tested the blood samples for
antibodies to a marker of coeliac disease and antibodies to gliadin, a marker of
gluten. In addition, patients also were tested for genes associated with coeliac
Alaedini stressed that the study is preliminary and "the increased antibody
response to gluten [found among patients] does not necessarily indicate
sensitivity to gluten or any disease-causing role for the antibodies in the
context of autism."
Instead, the higher levels of antibodies to gluten could point to immune
and/or intestinal abnormalities in the affected children, he said.
More research into the immune response of people with autism to gluten might
bring clues to the condition or highlight "a subset of patients that would
respond to certain treatment strategies", Alaedini said.
Importantly, the findings do not suggest that putting a child with
autism on a gluten-free diet has any benefit, he added.
Antibodies do not mean disease
"Such a conclusion cannot be drawn from this particular study," Alaedini
said. "By itself, the increased antibody response to gluten does not necessarily
indicate sensitivity to gluten or any pathogenic [disease-causing] role for the
Another expert agreed that the study findings are preliminary.
"By themselves, anti-gluten antibodies do not mean disease," explained Dr
Daniel Coury, medical director of Autism Speaks' Autism Treatment Network and
chief of developmental & behavioural paediatrics at Nationwide Children's
Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
"They are part of the whole puzzle. When they occur with other abnormalities
and with symptoms, we begin to get a clearer picture. It may be that this will
help identify a subgroup of individuals with autism who may benefit from a
specific treatment someday when we have a better understanding of just what is
going on here," Coury said.
Dr Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental & behavioural paediatrics at
the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York in New
Hyde Park, added that "this study could appear like some vindication to the many
people who think that gluten is somehow involved in autism and dietary changes
might be helpful. But that is not an accurate take-home message", Adesman
"Although increased gluten antibodies are present in children with autism and
it appears they are involved in gastrointestinal problems, at this point, it's
hard to know what role, if any, these antibodies have in autism," he said.
Adesman noted that research into gluten-free diets for children with autism
hasn't shown any benefit. "And this study doesn't reinforce any basis for
dietary intervention for autistic children," he stressed.
For more on autism, visit the US Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention.