Differences in the gut microbiota have been reported between individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and neurotypical controls, although direct evidence that changes in the microbiome contribute to causing ASD has been scarce to date. Here we summarize some considerations of experimental design that can help untangle causality in this complex system. In particular, large cross-sectional studies that can factor out important variables such as diet, prospective longitudinal studies that remove some of the influence of interpersonal variation in the microbiome (which is generally high, especially in children), and studies transferring microbial communities into germ-free mice may be especially useful. Controlling for the effects of technical variables, which have complicated efforts to combine existing studies, is critical when biological effect sizes are small. Large citizen-science studies with thousands of participants such as the American Gut Project have been effective at uncovering subtle microbiome effects in self-collected samples and with self-reported diet and behavior data, and may provide a useful complement to other types of traditionally funded and conducted studies in the case of ASD, especially in the hypothesis generation phase.
Keywords: autism; microbiology; microbiome; neurological.