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 (ASD) and inflammatory bowel disease.

In the first study of its kind to be conducted in Qatar, WCM-Q researchers are collaborating with the Child Development Centre to attempt to establish whether micro-organisms living in the gut – collectively known as ‘gut microbiota’ – could be linked to 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.

Dr Ghizlane Bendriss, a 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.

Dr Ghizlane Bendriss
Dr Ghizlane Bendriss

State of Balance

According to Dr Bendriss, our bodies have ten times more bacteria cells than human eukaryotic cells and these bacteria play important roles in the secretion of metabolites, neurotransmitters, and other modulators. She said that these micro-organisms 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 – collecting stool samples from volunteers who have either ASD, attention deficit hyperactivity (ADHD), Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, celiac disease or irritable bowel syndrome. The samples will be analysed 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.

Research Experience for Students 

WCM-Q second-year pre-medical students are also gaining research experience by taking part in the project. Students Mohammad Salameh and Zain Burney recently visited the Child Development Centre 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’ to discuss the latest treatment options arising from research into ASD and inflammatory bowel diseases.

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 Programme (UREP) of Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF).

Dr Bendriss said that the pilot study aims to raise awareness on the role of a healthy lifestyle in the gut composition and emergence of diseases, and assess 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 that 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.’

According to Dr Khaled Machaca, Associate Dean of Research at WCM-Q, the combination of using a grant mechanism (UREP) from QNRF 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. Not only does it highlight the talents of students and faculty, but it also make public the generosity of QNRF to make such research and training possible.

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