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Med Hypotheses. 2015 Apr;84(4):395-401. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2015.01.027. Epub 2015 Jan 28.

An agent-based modeling framework for evaluating hypotheses on risks for developing autism: effects of the gut microbial environment.

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University of Delaware, Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, 150 Academy Street, Newark, DE 19716, USA.
University of Delaware, Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, 150 Academy Street, Newark, DE 19716, USA. Electronic address:


The number of cases diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders is rising at an alarming rate with the Centers for Disease Control estimating the 2014 incidence rate as 1 in 68. Recently, it has been hypothesized that gut bacteria may contribute to the development of autism. Specifically, the relative balances between the inflammatory microbes clostridia and desulfovibrio and the anti-inflammatory microbe bifidobacteria may become destabilized prior to autism development. The imbalance leads to a leaky gut, characterized by a more porous epithelial membrane resulting in microbial toxin release into the blood, which may contribute to brain inflammation and autism development. To test how changes in population dynamics of the gut microbiome may lead to the imbalanced microbial populations associated with autism patients, we constructed a novel agent-based model of clostridia, desulfovibrio, and bifidobacteria population interactions in the gut. The model demonstrates how changing physiological conditions in the gut can affect the population dynamics of the microbiome. Simulations using our agent-based model indicate that despite large perturbations to initial levels of bacteria, the populations robustly achieve a single steady-state given similar gut conditions. These simulation results suggests that disturbance such as a prebiotic or antibiotic treatment may only transiently affect the gut microbiome. However, sustained prebiotic treatments may correct low population counts of bifidobacteria. Furthermore, our simulations suggest that clostridia growth rate is a key determinant of risk of autism development. Treatment of high-risk infants with supra-physiological levels of lysozymes may suppress clostridia growth rate, resulting in a steep decrease in the clostridia population and therefore reduced risk of autism development.

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