Research relating gut microbiome composition to autism spectrum disorders (ASD) has produced inconsistent results, indicative of the disorder's complexity and the need for more sophisticated experimental designs. We address this need by (i) comparing gut microbiome composition between individuals with ASD and neurotypical controls in Arizona and Colorado using standardized DNA extraction and sequencing methods at both locations and (ii) longitudinally evaluating the gut microbiome's relationship to autism behavioral severity, diet, and gastrointestinal symptoms. Gut microbiome composition differed between individuals in Arizona and individuals in Colorado, and gastrointestinal symptoms were significantly higher in ASD individuals than in neurotypical individuals in Arizona but not in Colorado. Gut microbiome composition was significantly associated with ASD while controlling for study-site location but not when controlling for gastrointestinal symptoms. This suggests that non-ASD-related study site differences in gut microbiome composition and different degrees of gastrointestinal symptoms involvement with ASD between sites may contribute to inconsistent results in the literature regarding the association between gut microbiome composition and ASD. In the longitudinal analysis, we found that difference in levels of lethargy/social withdrawal measured in individuals at different time points correlated with the degree of change in gut microbiome composition and that a worsening of inappropriate speech between time points was associated with decreased gut microbiome diversity. This relationship between changes in the gut microbiome composition within individuals and ASD behavioral severity metrics indicates that longitudinal study designs may be useful for exploring microbial drivers of ASD severity when substantial variability exists in baseline microbiome compositions across individuals and geographical regions.IMPORTANCE Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a brain developmental disorder with varying behavioral symptom severity both across individuals and within individuals over time. There have been promising but also inconsistent literature results regarding how the gut microbiota (microbiome) may be involved. We found that the gut microbiome in individuals with ASD is affected by study-site location as well as gastrointestinal symptom severity. When we sampled some individuals with ASD at several different time points, we found that some behaviors, such as lethargy/social withdrawal and inappropriate speech, changed along with changes in the gut microbiota composition. This is the first study to relate severity of behavior symptoms to gut microbiome composition within individuals over time and suggests a dynamic relationship between ASD-associated symptoms and gut microbes. Longitudinal study designs as well as collaborative efforts across multiple centers are needed to fully characterize the relationship between ASD and gut microbes.
Keywords: 16S rRNA gene; autism; autism spectrum disorder; behavior; behavioral severity; gut; longitudinal study design; microbiome; microbiota; next-generation sequencing.
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