Objective: Gastrointestinal symptoms are a common feature in children with autism, drawing attention to a potential association with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. However, studies to date regarding the immune response to gluten in autism and its association with celiac disease have been inconsistent. The aim of this study was to assess immune reactivity to gluten in pediatric patients diagnosed with autism according to strict criteria and to evaluate the potential link between autism and celiac disease.
Methods: Study participants included children (with or without gastrointestinal symptoms) diagnosed with autism according to both the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) and the Autism Diagnostic Interview, Revised (ADI-R) (n = 37), their unaffected siblings (n = 27), and age-matched healthy controls (n = 76). Serum specimens were tested for antibodies to native gliadin, deamidated gliadin, and transglutaminase 2 (TG2). Affected children were genotyped for celiac disease associated HLA-DQ2 and -DQ8 alleles.
Results: Children with autism had significantly higher levels of IgG antibody to gliadin compared with unrelated healthy controls (p<0.01). The IgG levels were also higher compared to the unaffected siblings, but did not reach statistical significance. The IgG anti-gliadin antibody response was significantly greater in the autistic children with gastrointestinal symptoms in comparison to those without them (p<0.01). There was no difference in IgA response to gliadin across groups. The levels of celiac disease-specific serologic markers, i.e., antibodies to deamidated gliadin and TG2, did not differ between patients and controls. An association between increased anti-gliadin antibody and presence of HLA-DQ2 and/or -DQ8 was not observed.
Conclusions: A subset of children with autism displays increased immune reactivity to gluten, the mechanism of which appears to be distinct from that in celiac disease. The increased anti-gliadin antibody response and its association with GI symptoms points to a potential mechanism involving immunologic and/or intestinal permeability abnormalities in affected children.