Pat Levitt, PhD, Simms/Mann Chair in Developmental Neurogenetics at Children's Hospital Los Angeles, has received a grant of nearly $1 million from Autism Speaks, the world's leading autism science and advocacy organization. Funding will support research into the treatment of chronic constipation to improve behavioral symptoms associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
In the largest study of its kind, Dr. Levitt's team will recruit 120 children between the ages of 5 and 12 who are affected by autism also have chronic constipation, through clinics affiliated with Children's Hospital Los Angeles and the University of California-Irvine. Nearly 40 percent of children with autism also have gastrointestinal (GI) disorders; of this group 80 percent are estimated to have severe constipation, according to the researchers.
"This study will take a completely novel look at how constipation correlates with severity of autism symptoms and related behavioral issues," said Levitt, who is also W.M. Keck Provost Professor in Neurogenetics, Pediatrics, Neuroscience, Pharmacy, Psychiatry, Pathology and Psychology at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California. "We want to see if successful GI treatment helps children with ASD become more receptive to social interactions. "
Upon enrolling in the study, children will be fully evaluated for G.I. disorders as well as for the communication or behavioral issues associated with ASD. They will receive the highest standard of care for their constipation by pediatric GI specialists at either Children's Hospital Los Angeles or Children's Hospital Orange County. Every three months over the course of a year, the experts will evaluate the children to see if their GI symptoms improve. At the same time, clinical psychologists at either CHLA or the Center for Autism Research and Translation (CAND) at UC Irvine will assess changes in autism symptoms. Dr. Joseph Donnelly of CAND will head the study at that site.
The researchers will also measure a biomarker for oxidative stress--a metabolite called isoprostane--which has been shown in past studies to be dramatically elevated in the subgroup of patients with both autism and severe constipation.
"We will measure the levels of isoprostane at the beginning of the study, and at three, six and 12-month intervals to see whether this measure of oxidative stress goes down as symptoms of autism and constipation improve," Levitt said. "The results will show us if isoprostane is a reliable biomarker for severe GI disorders in these children, who often can't communicate to their parent or doctor that they are experiencing abdominal pain."
Using data collected from children enrolled at other Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network sites for comparison, the researchers will track behavior and oxidative stress in children who have autism but are not affected by GI problems.
"If this study shows that successful GI treatment improves more than abdominal pain - if it helps children with ASD be more receptive to social interactions - we will have gained critical knowledge. It may well be that thoroughly addressing GI issues will significantly reduce the need for behavioral medications for many of our children," says Paul Wang, Autism Speaks senior vice president and head of medical research.
Parents or physicians wishing to receive more information about enrolling a child in the study may email
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