Five Things to Know: The Blood-Brain Barrier, Intestinal Permeability and Autism

Researchers from the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Mucosal Immunology and Biology Research Center at MassGeneral Hospital for Children (MGHfC) recently came out with a study published in Molecular Autism. Here are five things to know:

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is the fastest-growing developmental disability in the U.S., with 1 in every 68 children born in this country diagnosed with ASD. Parents and researchers alike are looking for both the causes and treatment options for this complex condition.

The blood-brain barrier prevents materials in the blood from entering the brain, and intestinal epithelial tissue (the intestine’s lining) creates a boundary between the intestine and its external environment. When either of these two barriers isn’t functioning properly, it can lead to inflammation in the body.

The Mass General Research Team looked at how the blood-brain barrier and increased intestinal permeability, otherwise known as a ‘leaky gut’, might affect the development of ASD. The study involved analyzing postmortem brain tissues from 33 individuals (8 with ASD, 10 with schizophrenia and 15 healthy controls) and intestinal tissues from 21 individuals (12 with ASD and 9 without such disorders).

The results showed alterations in both blood-brain barrier and intestinal permeability in individuals with ASD. This is the first time anyone has shown that an altered blood-brain barrier and impaired intestinal barrier might both play a role in inflammation of the nervous tissue in people with ASD.

What’s next? Researchers plan to look at how microbiota, the collection of microorganisms in the gut, are linked with leaky gut and behavior. Researchers already know that kids with ASD have an altered composition of gut microbial communities. If they can figure out what is required or missing, they may be able to develop new treatment strategies that could alleviate behavioral issues and/or the gastrointestinal symptoms.

Learn more about this study here.

About the Mass General Research Institute
Massachusetts General Hospital is home to the largest hospital-based research program in the United States. Our researchers work side-by-side with physicians to develop innovative new ways to diagnose, treat and prevent disease.
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