For some children with autism, there’s a connection between gastrointestinal issues and stress, anxiety and social withdrawal, a new study suggests.
The findings could help efforts to develop personalized treatments for autism patients with gastrointestinal problems such as stomach pain and constipation, the University of Missouri researchers suggest.
Such problems tend to occur more often in children with autism than in those without the disorder.
“Research has shown gastrointestinal issues are associated with an increased stress response as well as aggression and irritability in some children with autism,” says Brad Ferguson, an assistant research professor at the university’s Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders.
The link between stress and gastrointestinal issues
“This likely happens because some kids with autism are unable to verbally communicate their gastrointestinal discomfort as well as how they feel in general, which can be extremely frustrating,” Ferguson said in a university news release. “The goal of our research is to find out what factors are associated with gastrointestinal problems in individuals with autism so we can design treatments to help these individuals feel better.”
In the study, Ferguson and colleagues analyzed health data from more than 600 young patients who have autism with gastrointestinal issues. They found more evidence that the connection between the brain and the digestive tract — the gut-brain axis — plays an important role in gastrointestinal problems in people with autism.
“Stress signals from the brain can alter the release of neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine in the gut, which control gastrointestinal motility, or the movement of stool through the intestines. Stress also impacts the balance of bacteria living in the gut, called the microbiota, which can alter gastrointestinal functioning,” Ferguson explains.
“The gut then sends signals back to the brain, and that can, in turn, lead to feelings of anxiety, depression and social withdrawal,” he adds. “The cycle then repeats, so novel treatments addressing signals from both the brain and the gut may provide the most benefit for some kids with gastrointestinal disorders and autism.”
Solving this complex problem and developing treatments requires an interdisciplinary team of specialists, according to Ferguson.
He’s now involved in a clinical trial to assess how a stress-reducing medication affects gastrointestinal issues.
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