Exploring Associations between the Microbiome and Autism

A research team at Oregon State University, Stanford University, and Second Genome, a company based in California, is working to understanding possible connections between the microbiome and the central nervous system in order to identify therapeutic targets.


Autism is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder that affects social interaction, speech, and nonverbal communication. Research has found that autism has a strong genetic predisposition, and environmental factors can play a role too. Additionally, researchers have found that there is a correlation between autism and gastrointestinal problems: the more severe the symptoms of autism, the more severe the gastrointestinal problems. The potential relationship between autism and gastrointestinal problems are not yet understood, and a greater understanding may make it possible to identify biomarkers and develop potential therapeutic solutions. 


In an effort to further understand this relationship, Dr. Maude David at Oregon State University and her colleagues are studying the possible connection between the microbiome – the community of organisms that live in a person’s gut – and the central nervous system. As part of this work, the Metabolite, Microbiome, and the Mind, or M3 project, is a HIBAR research collaboration of researchers at Oregon State University, the Stanford University School of Medicine, and Second Genome, a company based in South San Francisco, California. Funded by a federal Small Business Innovation Research grant, the goal of this project is to study associations between the human microbiome and several neurological disorders, including autism spectrum disorder, and identify the potential therapeutic target. 

The research team used a crowdsource approach to recruit study participants. As part of the study, they collected saliva and stool samples, details about dietary habits, and self-reported scores of autism symptoms. Using this collected data, the research team identified a specific significant association between the degree of diversity within the microbiome and the severity of the symptoms that are observed, a result that broadly supports the work of other studies. This study also expanded the understanding of the possible connection between the microbiome and the central nervous system by identifying 117 different bacteria types that were in significant abundance or deficiency associated with the study participants. 

The M3 project embodies the characteristics of HIBAR research as it deeply integrates both the discovery-oriented goal of seeking new knowledge about the connection between the human microbiome and central nervous system disorders and the public impact goal of identifying biomarkers and develop potential therapeutic solutions for autism. The project was co-led by research partners working within academia, biotechnology, and health care, working closely with both practitioners and patients.


You can learn more about the M3 project here: