When researchers compared levels of antibodies to gluten wheat proteins in children with autism and children without autism, they found abnormally higher levels in children with autism than those without. In the first study comparing autism, celiac disease, and gluten, researchers found that, along with autism diagnosis, there was an association between the same elevated gluten antibodies and the presence of gastrointestinal symptoms. However, they found no connection to the elevated antibodies and the autoimmune disorder, celiac disease, which is known to be triggered by gluten and disrupt the digestive process.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized by social impairments and communication difficulties, and varies significantly in severity per individual. Autism occurs in all ethnic and socioeconomic groups, but males are four times more likely to have autism than females. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, an estimated one out of 88 children aged eight is autistic.

Gluten is a group of more than 80 proteins found in wheat and other related grains such as barley and rye. Gluten-free diets have become increasingly popular ever since they were found to agitate the digestive tract of those with celiac disease. Gluten-free diets are now considered a treatment for the disease because it helps them control their signs, symptoms, and complications. In time, with this new discovery, mothers may be turning to gluten-free diets during pregnancy and in the key developmental stages of a child's life to avoid an autism diagnosis.

The actual biological mechanisms that cause autism are lacking in research and development, but there is significant evidence to support the immune system plays a role. Trial and error has shown that autistic children digest gluten-free products better, as they are commonly plagued by gastrointestinal symptoms. The implementation of such gluten-free diet into a controlled and confirmed study has not been able to confirm its effectiveness until now.

"This is the first study to systematically look at serologic and genetic markers of celiac disease and gluten sensitivity in such well-characterized cohorts of autism patients and controls," said Peter H. R. Green, M.D., director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University Medical Center, and one of the study's authors. Serological studies is the science that diagnoses and identifies antibodies, an important factor when trying to understand autism and its stimulants.

The Columbia University Medical Center study looked at blood samples from 140 children, and found 37 of them were diagnosed with autism. The participants diagnosed with autism were confirmed by two highly regarded diagnostic instruments in order to ensure the study's efficacy. The other 103 samples were unaffected siblings or health control subjects.

The results showed elevated levels in the autistic children, but none of the antigens found in celiac disease. The significance of the antibodies is that there is a distinct connection to autism and the immune system, ultimately affected by the digestive tract. Antibodies are proteins used by the immune system to detect harmful substances called antigens, which bind together when they meet.

This is a big step toward understanding autism at its very core. Studies of autism have been around for years. In 1998, a study connecting autism and vaccines, published in the British Medical Journal, wasn't retracted until last year for elaborate fraud and misleading information. Dr. Andrew Wakefield misrepresented or altered medical histories of all 12 of his patient study participants in order to create a discovery linking autism and vaccinations. The connection led to a parental panic and a sharp drop in the number of children getting vaccines that prevented measles, mumps, and rubella, and in return, measles cases went up sharply in the following years.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization all agree that the likelihood that there is any relationship between autism and vaccines is extremely low. People who haven't educated themselves on the fraud of Wakefield's research are still convinced there's a connection between autism and vaccines.

"By themselves, these antibodies do not mean disease," said Dr. Dan Coury, medical director of Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network. "However, when high levels occur with other symptoms, we begin to get a clearer picture. This line of research may eventually identify subgroups of individuals with autism who will benefit from specific treatments."

The study's authors suggest further research is necessary to understand the relevance of their findings.

Source: Lau NM, Green PHR, Taylor AK, Hellberg D, Ajamian M. Markers of Celiac Disease and Gluten Sensitivity in Children with Autism. PLOS One. 2013.