Scientists at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston will be seeking to determine if gluten and dairy products have a role to play in autistic behaviour, as they launch two new studies to do so.
Autism is a complex neurobehavioral disorder linked to early abnormalities of brain development. Affecting up to six of every 1,000 children, the disease is characterized by impaired social interaction, problems with verbal and nonverbal communication and unusual, repetitive or severely limited activities and interests.
Researchers have discovered that there are differences in the central nervous system's anatomy and function in those diagnosed with autism, but the cause of the disorder is unknown. But, experts have explained that it may be a combination of genetics and environment.
"There's a lot of misinformation, so that's why this study is so important. Hundreds and hundreds of parents think this works but we need serious evidence," said Fernando Navarro, M.D., assistant professor of paediatrics at the medical school and lead investigator of the study.
"A lot of children with autism have gastrointestinal problems such as constipation and diarrhea. Whether these problems are related to brain development is open to question. There are neurotransmitters and neuroreceptors in the gut that correspond with those in the brain. There are some scientific reasons to think that some kids may benefit from this diet," said Katherine Loveland, Ph.D., co-investigator and professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences, paediatrics and biomedical sciences at the health science centre.
In the double-blind study, researchers will enroll 38 autistic children ages 3 to 9. They will look at the influence of gluten and milk proteins in the intestinal function.
Gluten is a protein in wheat; casein and whey are proteins in milk. Casomorphin, a peptide in milk; and gliadomorphin, a peptide in gluten, are believed to be related to changes in behaviour in these children. Children will be taken off gluten and dairy products before the four-week study and then half will be given gluten/milk powder and half will be given a placebo powder.
Researchers will study intestinal permeability (leaky gut) through urine collection and behaviour through psychometric testing.