The trillions of bacteria living inside of us, known as the microbiome, are being linked to many health conditions previously not understood, including neurodevelopmental conditions such as autism.
Now, a team of researchers at the Cumming School of Medicine has found that a high-fat diet, known as the ketogenic diet, leads to a remodelling of the gut microbiome by significantly reducing the total number of bacteria. In their study, the researchers used an animal model of autism spectrum disorder. Consensus is building among scientists that some bacteria play a role in certain types of autistic behaviour, although the mechanisms are still being discovered.
“We are excited to learn that this diet can influence the gut bacteria, and although we are using an animal model, understanding the mechanisms of the ketogenic diet will greatly help researchers develop and test new therapies for children with autism,” says Christopher Newell, a MD/PhD student in the Leaders of Medicine Program at the Cumming School of Medicine and lead author of the research which was published recently in the journal Molecular Autism.
Ketogenic diet studied in medicine since the 1920s
The ketogenic diet is a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet that forces your body to break down fats for fuel, instead of carbohydrates. Called ketosis, this metabolic state has been studied in medicine since the 1920s and is known to offer certain health benefits for those with epilepsy and possibly autism.
The senior authors on this paper are Jane Shearer, PhD, associate professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Dr. Jong Rho, a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the Cumming School of Medicine and section chief of pediatric neurology at the Alberta Children’s Hospital and both are members of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute. The authors suggest that further investigations are needed into the complex interplay between the gut microbiome and the brain relevant to neurological disorders.
“In partnership with the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, there is tremendous potential to understand the influence of the environment and diet on the development and progression of autism and other neurological diseases in children. Being in the Leaders in Medicine program, Chris is a unique position to translate basic science into the clinic,” says Shearer.
‘Big thinkers’ will present ideas and research
The paper is timely as this week the 5th Global Symposium on ketogenic therapies opens in Banff from Sept. 20 to Sept. 24. The symposium is co-hosted by the University of Calgary. Dr. Jong Rho is the chair of the organizing committee. The symposium brings 600 medical professionals, scientists, trainees and industry representatives to discuss the state of ketogenic therapy, research and innovations.
“We’re on a threshold of a very exciting new era on ketogenic therapies for neurological disorders. We’re learning more and more about that the fundamental processes in the body affected by the diet and the relevance it is having to many diseases in addition to epilepsy, including brain cancer, autism, Alzheimer’s and neurotrauma,” says Rho. The symposium is dedicated to improving the lives of people with neurological disorders and is part of a KetoConnect event series initiated by the Los Angeles-based Charlie Foundation.
Newell’s research is funded by MitoCanada. He is also the recipient of the Alberta Innovates - Health Solutions MD-PhD studentship 2016.