Targeting gut to manage behaviours in children with autism: QUT study

Could stress levels, behaviours and sleep patterns for children with autism be improved by altering their gut microbiome?

That’s what QUT PhD researcher and paediatric dietitian Jacqui Palmer is investigating through a randomised control trial.

  • More than 50 children aged from 4 to 10 years who have a clinical diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) will be recruited for the study
  • For six weeks children will take either a daily placebo or the prebiotic galactooligosaccharide, a fermentable carbohydrate found in foods like beans and lentils which feeds good bacteria in the gut
  • Gut microbiota and levels of the stress hormone cortisol will be measured before starting on the placebo/prebiotic and at the end of the six weeks
  • Parents will complete questionnaires to help the researchers measure changes in children’s social and mealtime behaviour, sleep, diet and gastrointestinal symptoms

Ms Palmer, from the Faculty of Health School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, said many children with autism can be extremely fussy eaters and very rigid in their routines.

PhD researcher Jacqui Palmer

“This means they often have a very restricted diet and may not be getting prebiotics to help maintain good gut bacteria,” she said. “A number of studies have shown that the gut bacteria of children with ASD differs from that of children without ASD.

“There is mounting scientific evidence about the gut-brain axis and the effect that gut bacteria can have on mood, behaviour and managing stress.

“Most children diagnosed with ASD are inherently anxious and prebiotics may be one way of helping to reduce that anxiety, and perhaps lessen some of the problematic behaviours associated with ASD, such as rigidity and need for sameness, difficulty with social interactions and disturbed sleep patterns.

“If there is increased flexibility around routines and children can better cope with day-to-day activities, this could help to improve quality of family life for all family members.”

Ms Palmer said while this is a relatively new area for researchers, with little scientific literature to date, animal models have shown reduced anxiety and improvements in mood and decision-making after treatment with the prebiotic galactooligosaccharide.

Last year, UK researchers who studied 30 children with autism reported that those who took galactooligosaccharides, as well as excluded certain foods from their diets, showed significant improvement in anti-social behaviours.

For the QUT study, parents will be asked to collect stool and saliva samples, and families will also take part in dietary behavioural therapy sessions. To find out more

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