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Autism and Learning Disabilities

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Child with autism stacking cans. Courtesy Wikimedia.

Child with autism stacking cans. Courtesy Wikimedia.

What Is Autism and Learning Disabilities?

Autism and learning disabilities constititute a non-progressive psychiatric syndrome appearing in childhood characterized by withdrawal from communication with others often accompanied by repetitive or primitive behaviors.

Primary gastrointestinal pathology may play an important role in the inception and clinical expression of autism.

Autistic children often manifest complex biochemical and immunological abnormalities.1 Following are four  main features involving the digestive tract:

1) Brain dysfunction from an abnormal gut. Common characteristics of hepatic encephalopathy (brain dysfunction caused by liver disease) and a form of autism associated with developmental regression and immune caused gastrointestinal pathology (abnormal) in an apparently healthy child, have led to the proposal that there may be similar mechanisms of toxic brain dysfunction caused by gluten and casein proteins.

Gluten in wheat and casein in cow milk are called exomorphines because they act like morphine (opioid) in the brain. Aberrations in opioid biochemistry are common in autism.

2) Characteristic intestinal pathology. Many autistic children with gut symptoms have ileocolonoic lymphoid nodular hyperplasia and inflammation of the intestinal lining. The colon lesion consisting of a mucosal infiltrate of yo T cells and Celiac Disease8+ T cells and crypt cell proliferation is enhanced significantly, and the basement membrane is thicker than in normal or disease groups. Neutrophil and eosinophil mucosal infiltration and absence on colonic epithelium of HLA-DR antigen suggests a T-helper -2 dominated immune response.

The corresponding small intestinal lesion also shows a distinct inflammatory reaction in which immune-mediated epithelial cell damage is predominant and blood anitibodies of the IgG type colonizes with complement. 

3) Intestinal permeability abnormalities. A subset of children with autism were found to display increased immune reactivity to gluten, the mechanism of which appears to be distinct from that in celiac disease. The increased anti-gliadin antibody response and its association with gastrointestinal symptoms points to a potential mechanism involving immunologic and/or intestinal permeability abnormalities in affected children.2

4) Secondary dysbiosis. Anaerobic dysbiosis develops in the colon caused by fermentation of the overload of undigested food arriving from the small intestine. Billions of microbes in the colon normally breakdown undigested food, however,  in autism, the process is dysfunctional and produces byproducts that are toxic to the brain resulting in encephalopathy.

What Is Autism and Learning Disabilities In Celiac Disease and/or Gluten Sensitivity?


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  1. Wakefield AJ, Puleston M, Montgomery SM, Anthony A, O’Leary JJ, Murch SH. Review Article: the concept of entero-colonic encephalopathy, autism, and opioid receptor ligands. Aliment Parmacol Ther. 2002; 16:663-674. []
  2. Lau NM, Green PH, Taylor AK, Hellberg D, Ajamian M, Tan CZ, Kosofsky BE, Higgins JJ, Rajadhyaksha AM, Alaedini A. Markers of Celiac Disease and Gluten Sensitivity in Children with Autism. PLoS One. 2013 Jun 18;8(6):e66155. Print 2013. []