Findings from two novel animal studies indicate autism and schizophrenia may be linked to an individual's inability to properly break down a protein found in milk, University of Florida researchers report in this month's issue of the journal Autism.
The digestive problem might actually lead to the disorders' symptoms, whose basis has long been debated, said UF physiologist Dr. J. Robert Cade, cautioning that further research must take place before scientists have a definitive answer. When not broken down, the milk protein produces exorphins, morphine-like compounds that are then taken up by areas of the brain known to be involved in autism and schizophrenia, where they cause cells to dysfunction.
The animal findings suggest an intestinal flaw, such as a malfunctioning enzyme, is to blame, says Cade, whose team also is putting the theory to the test in humans. Preliminary findings from that study which showed 95 percent of 81 autistic and schizophrenic children studied had 100 times the normal levels of the milk protein in their blood and urine have been presented at two international meetings in the past year but have not yet been published.
When these children were put on a milk-free diet, at least eight out of 10 no longer had symptoms of autism or schizophrenia, says Cade, a professor of medicine and physiology at UF's College of Medicine and inventor of the Gatorade sports drink. His research team includes research scientist Dr. Zhongjie Sun and research associate R. Malcolm Privette.
"We now have proof positive that these proteins are getting into the blood and proof positive they're getting into areas of the brain involved with the symptoms of autism and schizophrenia," Cade said.