Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) affects a significant number of individuals worldwide with the prevalence continuing to grow. It is becoming clear that a large subgroup of individuals with ASD demonstrate abnormalities in mitochondrial function as well as gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms. Interestingly, GI disturbances are common in individuals with mitochondrial disorders and have been reported to be highly prevalent in individuals with co-occurring ASD and mitochondrial disease. The majority of individuals with ASD and mitochondrial disorders do not manifest a primary genetic mutation, raising the possibility that their mitochondrial disorder is acquired or, at least, results from a combination of genetic susceptibility interacting with a wide range of environmental triggers. Mitochondria are very sensitive to both endogenous and exogenous environmental stressors such as toxicants, iatrogenic medications, immune activation, and metabolic disturbances. Many of these same environmental stressors have been associated with ASD, suggesting that the mitochondria could be the biological link between environmental stressors and neurometabolic abnormalities associated with ASD. This paper reviews the possible links between GI abnormalities, mitochondria, and ASD. First, we review the link between GI symptoms and abnormalities in mitochondrial function. Second, we review the evidence supporting the notion that environmental stressors linked to ASD can also adversely affect both mitochondria and GI function. Third, we review the evidence that enteric bacteria that are overrepresented in children with ASD, particularly Clostridia spp., produce short-chain fatty acid metabolites that are potentially toxic to the mitochondria. We provide an example of this gut-brain connection by highlighting the propionic acid rodent model of ASD and the clinical evidence that supports this animal model. Lastly, we discuss the potential therapeutic approaches that could be helpful for GI symptoms in ASD and mitochondrial disorders. To this end, this review aims to help better understand the underlying pathophysiology associated with ASD that may be related to concurrent mitochondrial and GI dysfunction.
Keywords: Clostridia spp.; autism spectrum disorders; electron transport chain; enteric bacteria; fatty acid metabolism; gastrointestinal; mitochondrial dysfunction; oxidative stress; propionic acid; short-chain fatty acids.