Associations between cytokines, endocrine stress response, and gastrointestinal symptoms in autism spectrum disorder

Bradley J. Ferguson, Sarah Marler, Lily L. Altstein, Evon Batey Lee, Micah O. Mazurek, Aaron McLaughlin, Eric A. Macklin, Erin McDonnell, Daniel J. Davis, Anthony M. Belenchia, Catherine H. Gillespie, Catherine A. Peterson, Margaret L. Bauman, Kara Gross Margolis, Jeremy Veenstra-VanderWeele, David Q. Beversdorf

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Many children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have significant gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms, but the etiology is currently unknown. Some individuals with ASD show altered reactivity to stress and altered immune markers relative to typically-developing individuals, particularly stress-responsive cytokines including tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α) and interleukin 6 (IL-6). Acute and chronic stress is associated with the onset and exacerbation of GI symptoms in those without ASD. The present study examined whether GI symptoms in ASD were associated with increases in cortisol, a stress-associated endocrine marker, and TNF-α and IL-6 in response to stress. As hypothesized, a greater amount of lower GI tract symptoms were significantly associated with post-stress cortisol concentration. The relationship between cortisol response to stress and GI functioning was greater for children who had a history of regressive autism. Exploratory analyses revealed significant correlations between cortisol response, intelligence, and inappropriate speech. In contrast, symptoms of the lower GI tract were not associated with levels of TNF-α or IL-6. Significant correlations were found, however, between TNF-α and IL-6 and irritability, socialization, and intelligence. These findings suggest that individuals with ASD and symptoms of the lower GI tract may have an increased response to stress, but this effect is not associated with concomitant changes in TNF-α and IL-6. The relationship between cortisol stress response and lower GI tract symptoms in children with regressive autism, as well as the relationships between cortisol, IL-6, and intelligence in ASD, warrant further investigation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)57-62
Number of pages6
JournalBrain, Behavior, and Immunity
StatePublished - Nov 1 2016


  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Cortisol
  • Cytokines
  • Gastrointestinal disorders
  • Stress

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Immunology
  • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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