WCM-Q research probes links between gut health, autism and bowel disorders
Researchers at Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar (WCM-Q) are investigating the role of bacteria in the human gut in the development of autism spectrum disorder and inflammatory bowel disease.
In the first study of its type to be conducted in Qatar, WCM-Q researchers are collaborating with the Child Development Center to attempt to establish whether microorganisms living in the gut – collectively known as ‘gut microbiota’ – could be linked to autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, celiac disease and irritable bowel syndrome.
The study has been prompted by a growing body of international research, which suggests the link between the gut and the brain is far more important to human health than previously thought.
WCM-Q’s Dr. Ghizlane Bendriss, visiting lecturer in biology, is leading the study. Dr. Noha Yousri, adjunct assistant professor of genetic medicine, and Dr. Dalia Zakaria, biological sciences teaching specialist, are responsible for the bio-statistical and microbiological analyses of the project, respectively.
Dr. Bendriss said: “We have ten times more bacteria cells than human eukaryotic cells in our body and these bacteria play important roles in the secretion of metabolites, neurotransmitters, and other modulators. These microorganisms need to be in a state of balance between the beneficial and harmful bacteria; disruption of this balance is called dysbiosis and appears to impact the function of various organs.
“The first organ to be altered is the gut itself, which will become leaky, thereby allowing allergens, metabolites and other molecules to enter the blood and later on cross the blood-brain barrier to reach the brain.”
One key part of the project involves a pilot study, which is collecting stool samples from volunteers who have either autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity (ADHD), Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, celiac disease or irritable bowel syndrome. The samples will be analyzed to ascertain the gut microbiota balance of each participant and then cross-referenced with their disease profiles to discover where links exist. The research team is also collecting control samples from individuals who have none of these conditions.
WCM-Q second-year pre-medical students are gaining research experience by taking part in the project. Students Mohammad Salameh and Zain Burney recently visited the Children’s Development Center to meet with children with autism and their parents while recruiting volunteers for the research study. In March, students Dana Al-Ali, Ameena Shafiq, Nada Mhaimeed and Krishnadev Pillai spoke at a seminar entitled ‘The gut, the brain’ that discussed the latest treatment options arising from research into ASD and inflammatory bowel diseases.
Student Mohammad Salameh said: “Although my decision to take part in the research was solely due to the fact that I was interested in the science behind the topic, the trip I took to the Child Development Center completely changed my perspective on the research. My desire to continue this research has become a personal interest in helping those who suffer from ASD and their families.”
The research is part of a project entitled ‘Role of human gut microbiota in autism spectrum disorder and inflammatory bowel disease’, which is sponsored by the Undergraduate Research Experience Program (UREP) of Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF) under grant number UREP 21-059-1-011.
Dr. Bendriss added: “Our pilot study aims at raising awareness of the role of a healthy lifestyle in the gut composition and emergence of diseases, and assessing the feasibility of running clinical trials in Qatar to test the efficacy of dietary changes and fecal transplants as treatments for ASD and inflammatory bowel diseases. We understand any such trials would take time to be implemented but they would certainly be the first of their kind to take place in the GCC region.”
Dr Khaled Machaca, Associate Dean of Research at WCM-Q, said: “The combination of using a grant mechanism (UREP) from the Qatar National Research Fund to support not only an important research area for the country but also train students in the conduct of research is a win-win undertaking. This research highlights the talent of our students and faculty and the generous support of QNRF in making such research and training possible.”