The finding may have implications for the cause and treatment of gastrointestinal troubles that often accompany autism spectrum disorders. Diets excluding gluten have become popular in the autism community, but the effectiveness of such diets has not been confirmed.
However, according to the new study, "there appears to be an increased immune reactivity to gluten in children with autism, which is associated with gastrointestinal symptoms," said lead researcher Armin Alaedini, an assistant professor of medical sciences at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City.
Alaedini stressed that the study is preliminary and "the increased antibody response to gluten [found among patients] does not necessarily indicate sensitivity to gluten or any disease-causing role for the antibodies in the context of autism."
Importantly, the findings do not suggest that putting a child with autism on a gluten-free diet has any benefit, he added.
"Such a conclusion cannot be drawn from this particular study," Alaedini said. "By itself, the increased antibody response to gluten does not necessarily indicate sensitivity to gluten or any pathogenic [disease-causing] role for the antibodies."
The report was published in the June online issue of PLoS One.
Another expert agreed that the study findings are preliminary.
"By themselves, anti-gluten antibodies do not mean disease," explained Dr. Daniel Coury, medical director of Autism Speaks' Autism Treatment Network and chief of developmental & behavioral pediatrics at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
"They are part of the whole puzzle. When they occur with other abnormalities and with symptoms, we begin to get a clearer picture. It may be that this will help identify a subgroup of individuals with autism who may benefit from a specific treatment someday when we have a better understanding of just what is going on here," Coury said.