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Study Reports Autism Not Tied to Celiac Disease

Update Date: Sep 27, 2013 03:43 PM EDT

Even though researchers have not found the exact biological causes of developmental disorder, autism, one theory is that it starts in the gut since autistic children tend to have gastrointestinal problems. Due to this theory, some doctors put autistic children on a gluten-free diet, which is prescribed for people with celiac disease. In a new, large-scale study, researchers reported that there was no link between autism and celiac disease.

In this study, researchers from Sweden examined the health records of around 290,000 people who had intestinal biopsies, which examine the individual's small intestine for any damages. Biopsies are currently considered the most effective way to check for celiac disease. After analyzing the data, the researchers found that around 27,000 people had full blown celiac disease. Over 12,000 of them had signs of inflammation even though they did not have celiac disease. The researchers also found that another 3,700 people had an immune reaction to wheat proteins but did not have any intestinal damage.

The researchers looked at the rates of autism in this group of data and compared them to the autism rates in another group of over 213,000 people with normal biopsies. After matching age and sex, the researchers concluded that there was no strong evidence that autism and celiac disease are linked to one another.

"If there was a connection between these two diseases -- either hidden celiac disease causing autism or autism causing celiac disease, it should have shown up in the study of this size. So, I think that's the big message," said study author, Dr. Joseph Murray, who is a specialist at Mayo Clinic. "This brings some finality to that debate."

The study could not explain why certain people had an immune reaction to wheat proteins and had clear intestinal biopsies. These people were around three times more likely to get autism later in life than children who had negative blood tests. 

"We don't know what causes autism. So the question is, what's going on there?" Dr. Daniel Coury, the chief of developmental-behavioral pediatrics at Nationwide Children's Hospital, said according to WebMD. "We do know there are some inflammatory markers or immune issues involved with autism and this might help explain some cases of autism."

The study was published in JAMA Psychiatry

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