Researchers at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University have found that an uncommon bacterium exists in the walls of intestines of children with autism, but not those who do not have autism.
The study, led by Brent Williams, tested 23 tissue biopsy samples from children with autism and found that a large portion (12 of the 23) contained the bacteria belonging to the group Sutterella. Even so, the bacteria are generally uncommon, not being found in any of the tissue samples from children without autism.
“Sutterella has been associated with gastrointestinal diseases below the diaphragm, and whether it’s a pathogen or not is still not clear,” explains Jorge Benach reviewing the report. “It is not a very well-known bacterium.” Although Jorge Benach did not participate in the study, he is the Chairman of the Department of Microbiology at Stony Brook University.
The study is significant and all the more powerful due to the fact that the researchers used tissue samples from the digestive systems of patients rather than the stool. This is because the microorganisms shed in stool don’t necessarily represent the array of microbes that line the intestinal wall. “What may show up in a stool sample may be different from what is directly attached to the tissue,” he says.
At this point it is unclear whether or not the bacteria is a cause or an effect of autism, and more research is required. The results also point to a possibility that the bacteria Sutterella could be a factor in the intestinal problems associated with autistic children. “It is an observation that needs to be followed through,” says Benach.