Emerging Roles for the Gut Microbiome in Autism Spectrum Disorder

Biol Psychiatry. 2017 Mar 1;81(5):411-423. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2016.08.024. Epub 2016 Aug 26.


Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a serious neurodevelopmental disorder that affects one in 45 children in the United States, with a similarly striking prevalence in countries around the world. However, mechanisms underlying its etiology and manifestations remain poorly understood. Although ASD is diagnosed based on the presence and severity of impaired social communication and repetitive behavior, immune dysregulation and gastrointestinal issues are common comorbidities. The microbiome is an integral part of human physiology; recent studies show that changes in the gut microbiota can modulate gastrointestinal physiology, immune function, and even behavior. Links between particular bacteria from the indigenous gut microbiota and phenotypes relevant to ASD raise the important question of whether microbial dysbiosis plays a role in the development or presentation of ASD symptoms. Here we review reports of microbial dysbiosis in ASD. We further discuss potential effects of the microbiota on ASD-associated symptoms, drawing on signaling mechanisms for reciprocal interactions among the microbiota, immunity, gut function, and behavior. In addition, we discuss recent findings supporting a role for the microbiome as an interface between environmental and genetic risk factors that are associated with ASD. These studies highlight the integration of pathways across multiple body systems that together can impact brain and behavior and suggest that changes in the microbiome may contribute to symptoms of neurodevelopmental disease.

Keywords: Autism; Gastrointestinal tract; Gut-brain axis; Inflammation; Microbiota; Neurodevelopment.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Animals
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / genetics
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / immunology*
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / microbiology*
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / physiopathology
  • Behavior, Animal
  • Brain / immunology
  • Brain / microbiology
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Endophenotypes
  • Gastrointestinal Microbiome*
  • Gastrointestinal Tract / immunology*
  • Gastrointestinal Tract / microbiology
  • Gastrointestinal Tract / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Risk Factors