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Autism, gluten and dairy: figuring out if there's a link

August 11, 2008 | 11:31 am

Many parents of children with autism say their kids do better when placed on gluten-free or dairy-free diets. (Go, for example, here, here and here.) But anecdotal reports are a little hard to parse -- ideally, what one would have is a carefully designed study in which children's diets are altered or not and their behavior and progress then measured. Such studies are rarely done -- tricky to design, expensive to fund, and probably not the kind of study most likely to lure drug company money.

Researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston are embarking on one now. "Hundreds and hundreds of parents think this works but we need serious evidence,” says lead investigator Dr. Fernando Navarro, assistant professor of pediatrics at the institution, in the university's release.

"A lot of children with autism have gastrointestinal problems such as constipation and diarrhea," adds co-investigator Katherine Loveland, also a professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. "There are neurotransmitters and neuroreceptors in the gut that correspond with those in the brain. There are some scientific reasons to think that some kids may benefit from this diet."

It's a small pilot study, funded by the University of Texas Health Science Center's department of pediatrics. Thirty-eight children with autism ages 3 to 9 will first have all gluten and dairy removed from their diet. Then half will be given gluten and milk powder and the other half a placebo. Then progress will be tracked for four weeks. Behavior will be tracked using psychological tests and leakiness of the gut via urine tests.

Seems like this would be one to watch.

-- Rosie Mestel

P.S. And here's a thoughtful take of one autism specialist who's not so sure about these diets because he says, if anything, children with autism tend to be picky eaters and attempts should be made to expand their diet.

-- Rosie Mestel