NEWS | December 12, 2013

January distinguished lecture to address the link between the gut and the brain in autism


Alessio Fasano, an internationally respected pediatric gastroenterologist, research scientist and founder of the Center for Celiac Research at Mass General Hospital for Children, will present “Gut-brain interaction in autism spectrum disorder: What language do they speak, and do they understand each other?” during the January 2014 UC Davis MIND Institute distinguished lecture.

Alessio Fasano Alessio Fasano

The first distinguished lecture of the New Year will be delivered from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 8, in the MIND Institute auditorium, 2825 50th St., Sacramento, Calif. The event is free and open to the public and no reservations are required.

The functional connection between two apparently spatially and functionally distant organs — the intestine and the brain — has been conceptualized as a "gut-brain axis." Numerous studies have shown that specific events occurring in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract may have repercussions in the brain, and vice versa. Fasano said that autism spectrum disorder represents the archetype of this concept.

“Like many other multifaceted conditions, autism spectrum disorder is the result of the interplay between the body and its environment,” he said. “The role of the environment has been outlined by epidemiological studies showing specific regional distribution of autism within the United States. The recent ‘epidemic’ of autism that has ballooned to an astonishing rate of 1 in 80 is testimony to the prevalent role that the environment plays in triggering autism.”

Fasano’s lecture will explore the theory that a change in the composition of the gut microbiota in children with autism can cause permeability of the gut barrier, with the consequent access of non-self antigens, including gluten and casein, instigating activation of the immune system.

Fasano is director of the Center for Celiac Research, where he also is chief of the Division of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition and associate chief for Basic, Clinical and Translational Research. He is visiting professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. His research focuses on the mucosal biology of the gut and transcends the disciplines of microbiology, molecular and cellular biology, and physiology.

The discovery by Fasano's research team of bacterial toxins that cause diarrhea led to the development of new vaccines. Their work also led to the discovery in 2000 of the ancient molecule zonulin, which regulates the permeability of the intestine. Fasano’s research has linked an overproduction of zonulin and, therefore, increased intestinal permeability to the pathogenesis of a series of autoimmune diseases, including type 1 diabetes, celiac disease and multiple sclerosis. 

All Distinguished Lecturer Series presentations are free and open to the public, with no reservations required. The MIND Institute Resource Center, specializing in information and resources relating to neurodevelopmental disorders and related conditions, is open one hour before and 30 minutes after each presentation.

The UC Davis MIND Institute in Sacramento, Calif., was founded in 1998 as a unique interdisciplinary research center where families, community leaders, researchers, clinicians and volunteers work together toward a common goal: researching causes, treatments and eventual preventions and cures for neurodevelopmental disorders. The institute has major research efforts in autism, fragile X syndrome, chromosome 22q11.2 deletion syndrome, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Down syndrome. More information about the institute and its Distinguished Lecturer Series, including previous presentations in this series, is available on the Web at