Autism: Research Update
Chester J. Zelasko, Ph.D. | September 12, 2006

One of the most frequently asked questions we get at Better Life is this: “My child has autism. Is there anything new from a dietary or supplement perspective that may help my child?” This update of recent autism research indicates what direction the science is heading and may give you some new possibilities to discuss with your child’s doctor.

Please understand that none of these are cures for autism.

The cause for autism hasn’t been established yet. Theories ranging from mercury content of vaccinations to food allergies to men fathering children at older ages have been implicated as potential causes (1)--but without knowing the cause, it’s difficult to know how to prevent or treat any condition. With about 5.5 children out of a 1,000 being diagnosed with autism every year, anything that may lead to improvement for the child is important (2). Research indicates that lifestyle is very critical once the diagnosis has been reached. Be sure to discuss any lifestyle change, whether it’s in diet or supplementation, with your physician. A team approach is the right way to deal with autism, and healthcare professionals should be a part of that team.

Vitamins and Minerals
Several studies have shown that children with autism seem to have difficulty metabolizing certain nutrients--specifically, vitamin B6, B12, and magnesium. Researchers examined the vitamin B6 in children with autism versus control subjects (3). Children with autism had much higher levels of vitamin B6, yet low levels of the enzyme that converts it to an active form. The resulting chemical, pyridoxal 5-phosphate, is a critical cofactor to over 100 chemical reactions in the body, including the formation of neurotransmitters.

Another group of researchers examined the effects of supplementation with vitamin B6 and magnesium in a group of autistic children (4). Behavior, communication, and developmental skills improved in close to two-thirds of the autistic children after supplementation with those nutrients for six months. Researchers noted an increase in the blood cell (erythrocyte) values of vitamin B6 and magnesium before and after treatment. The amounts used in the study were:
  • 0.6 mg/kg body weight/day of vitamin B6
  • 6.0 mg/kg body weight/day of magnesium
For a 55-pound child, those amounts would be 15 mg vitamin B6 and 150 mg magnesium per day.

Why would more vitamin B6 benefit autistic children when the prior study seemed to indicate they already had high levels? It comes down to location. In the first study, they examined B6 levels in serum, the fluid portion of blood, where it was high. In the second, they examined the amounts in the blood cells themselves; it was low before the study and higher after. By introducing higher amounts of the vitamin, the cells were overwhelmed and absorbed more of the nutrients.

Again, while the results are encouraging, you must discuss any supplementation with your physician to monitor liver and other body functions during the supplementation process.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Two reviews were published this year that examined the potential for omega-3 fatty acids to benefit children and adults with neurological problems, including autism (5,6). While the scientific papers essentially laid the groundwork for future research, the reasons are important.

Omega-3 fatty acids are important in the formation of the nerve-cell membranes. Stated simply, when omega-3 fatty acids are included in the diet, whether from foods or supplements, nerve cells communicate better. The mechanisms are not completely known, but the results are encouraging.

Omega-3 fatty acids are also important in the inflammatory process. They alter the prostaglandin cascade, and when combined with decreased levels of saturated fats, have been demonstrated to reduce inflammation.

While more research needs to be done, supplementing the autistic child’s diet with omega-3 fatty acids seems to be prudent. Fish oil, flaxseed oil, walnuts, and flax are all good sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Target amounts would be 2-3 grams per day of omega-3 fatty acids for children and up to five grams per day for adults.

Recent research has demonstrated a relationship between the digestive system and immune function (7). One of the potential causes of autism revolves around leaky-gut syndrome. In this theory, the intestinal mucosa allow larger protein molecules to be absorbed. This either initiates an allergic response or causes the creation of abnormal chemicals that affect brain development and action. While it may take years to parse out how this mechanism works, there are a couple of things that may help.

First, probiotics, the “good” bacteria, can help with gut function so that foods are digested properly. This can enhance immune function and reduce the potential for absorption of larger molecules. The greater the variety of bacteria introduced the better. Look for a supplement that contains the widest variety of probiotics in a form that provides the most live bacteria.

Concurrent with probiotics, there is research to support a diet free of gluten and casein to improve symptoms of autism (8). Gluten is a protein found in grains, and casein is a protein found in milk. Eliminating these from the diet has been shown to be effective in some cases.

The research reviewed provides new possibilities to explore and demonstrates that lifestyle is critical to managing autism. While there are no cures, there is hope that children can improve and lead more independent lives. As always, more research is needed, especially research examining the genetic components of autism. As more is discovered, we’ll continue to keep you posted.

  1. Reichenberg A, et al. Advancing paternal age and autism. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2006;63(9):1026-32.

  2. National Center for Health Statistics, Centers for Disease Control. Mental Health in the United States: Parental Report of Diagnosed Autism in Children Aged 4-17 Years--United States, 2003-2004. MMWR. May 5, 2006. 55(17);481-486.

  3. Adams JB, et al. Abnormally high plasma levels of vitamin B6 in children with autism not taking supplements compared to controls not taking supplements. J Altern Complement Med. 2006;12(1):59-63.

  4. Mousain-Bosc M et al. Improvement of neurobehavioral disorders in children supplemented with magnesium and vitamin B6. Magnes Res. 2006;19(1):53-62.

  5. Richardson AJ. Omega-3 fatty acids in ADHD and related neurodevelopmental disorders. Int Rev Psychiatry. 2006;18(2):155-72.

  6. Muskiet FA, Kemperman RF Folate and long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in psychiatric disease. J Nutr Biochem. 2006 Apr 28; [Epub].

  7. White, JF. Intestinal Pathophysiology in Autism. Exp Biol Med 228:639–649, 2003.

  8. Elder JH, et al. The gluten-free, casein-free diet in autism: results of a preliminary double-blind clinical trial. J Autism Dev Disord. 2006;36(3):413-20.
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