Some Kids with Autism Respond Positively to Ketogenic Diet

Pilot study shows improving metabolism and gut microbiome linked to better behaviour

hile a high-fat, low-carb ketogenic diet may be most well known for those hoping to lose a few pounds, researchers have discovered that when kids with autism spectrum disorders, or ASD, were fed a modified version of a ketogenic diet, it improved behaviour and changed the metabolism and trace elements in their bodies.

ASD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is characterized by ritualistic-repetitive behaviour, and affects social communication and interaction. In North America, it’s the fastest growing neurodevelopmental disorder.

“We found after three months on the diet, participants had decreased self-directed repetitive behaviour and improved social communication,” says Dr. Chunlong Mu, PhD, lead researcher on the study published in the Journal of Proteome Research, and a postdoctoral associate with Dr. Jane Shearer, PhD,  with the Faculty of Kinesiology and Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute in the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM). Mu’s research focuses on nutrition and gut microbiota.

With a ketogenic diet, the body has high levels of ketones in the blood. Ketones are produced when the body starts breaking down fats for energy. It was chosen for the study as it has been used to treat neural disorders such as refractory epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. It’s also been found to be effective for ASD.

Chunlong Mu, postdoctoral scholar
Chunlong Mu, postdoctoral scholar at the University of Calgary and lead researcher.
Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

“One way the diet may work is that it increases the ketones available to produce energy in the brain, reversing oxidative stress and mitochondria dysfunction which may contribute to ASD,” says Mu. “With this study we wanted to do extensive metabolic profiling to understand why the diet has therapeutic benefits.”

Treatment alternative for ASD

To test the metabolic system, researchers investigated the behaviour patterns of participants in relation to 118 plasma metabolites (substance produced during metabolism) and 73 trace elements such as copper, cadmium, iron and selenium. Metabolites were assessed by three different platforms in the laboratory of Dr. Hans Vogel, PhD, a co-author and metabolomics expert in the Department of Biological Sciences in the Faculty of Science and member of the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases, and the Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute at the CSM.

In initial tests, the participants with ASD had higher concentrations of some metabolites that are associated with metabolic dysfunction, and lower levels of some minerals such as selenium that are important for the development of mitochondria and brain function. After three months on the diet, those with ASD had more balanced levels of metabolites and trace minerals in their blood and behaviour scores had improved.

The current treatments for ASD are limited to mainly educational and behavioural interventions, and it’s recognized the antipsychotic medications used for ASD have adverse effects.

“A dietary option would be of immense benefit,” says Mu,whowill continue to investigate the role of the ketogenic diet and gut microbiome in paediatric neurodevelopment disorders, including ASD and epilepsy.

Additional information and resources on ASD can be found at Autism Canada.

About the researchers

Dr. Chunlong Mu, PhD, is funded by an Owerko Centre Postdoctoral Fellowship from the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation. This was a research collaboration between the Faculty of Kinesiology and Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) at the University of Calgary, and the John Burns School of Medicine, University of Honolulu, with participants through the Shriner Hospitals for Children, Honolulu, Hawaii. This study was funded by the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute Translational Autism Research Program supported by the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation.

Dr. Jane Shearer, PhD, is a professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and jointly appointed to the Cumming School of Medicine’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. She is also a member of the Owerko Centre, and Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute at the CSM.

Dr. Hans Vogel, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in the Faculty of Science and is an adjunct professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the CSM. He is also a member of the Snyder Institute for Chronic Disease, and the Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute at the CSM.

About the International Microbiome Centre

The International Microbiome Centre at UCalgary is the largest microbiome research facility at an academic institution in the world. It allows us to investigate how the microbiome from various sites of the body controls organ function. Starting Dec. 18, find out more about microbiome research at UCalgary. 

UCalgary has partnered with the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa to help people better understand the microbiome’s influence on our body and disease, and how we might be able to harness the power of the microbiome to cure illnesses. The  museum is hosting the Canadian premiere of a travelling exhibit entitled Me & My Microbes: The Zoo Inside You from Dec. 20, 2019 to March 29, 2020. Watch for Guts Talks by UCalgary researchers.

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