8 October 2018

Aletta Kraneveld takes part in international research project of 14,2 million

The quest for the diet that will prevent autism

Etend kind
Foto: Pixabay

The prevention of autism through dietary adjustments among the risk group at an early age: this ultimate goal drives a major research project in which Utrecht University is taking part. After the European Commission had awarded a research grant of 14.2 million euros, the project marked its official launch last week. 

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are prevalent around the globe among 1 in 59 children, presenting a huge burden to themselves, their families and the health-care industry. A study by the London School of Economics has found the social cost of ASD to exceed that of cancer, heart disease and stroke combined. So far, however, treatments to prevent or reduce the chance of autism have not been found.

This situation is set to change as a result of the new research project GEMMA (Genome, Environment, Microbiome and Metabolome in Autism). Before GEMMA, no research project has ever looked at DNA, RNA, proteins and bacteria in conjunction with environmental data. By doing so, the researchers intend to make an extensive analysis of the way in which the intestinal bacteria and immune system affect the development of autism.

'We already know that gut bacteria may contribute to the onset of autism. We are now going to investigate the detailed workings of this interaction'

'We already know that gut bacteria may contribute to the onset of autism,' explains Aletta Kraneveld, Professor of Interdisciplinary Translational Pharmacology at Utrecht University's Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences. Kraneveld is coordinator for the preclinical component of this study. 'Autistic children often suffer from intestinal complaints including diarrhoea, constipation and bellyache. Although we are not yet aware of the exact connection between the brain disorder autism and the gut flora, we are certain that our intestinal bacteria and immune system are heavily involved. We are now going to investigate the detailed workings of this interaction.'

The research project aims to apply such knowledge in personalising treatment plans and designing dietary interventions so as to reduce gut complaints and consequently lower the risk of autism. Another ambition of the project is to improve the process of making an ASD diagnosis.

In total, 600 children from a risk group for autism will take part in the research.

Aletta Kraneveld


Responsibility for the preclinical research component rests with Kraneveld. She will cooperate with the INRA institute in Paris to investigate the role of the intestinal bacteria and immune system in the development of autistic behaviour through the study of stool transplants in mice. The researchers will use this model to examine how different foodstuffs affect the gut bacteria and the potential development of autism. At a later stage, the team will be able to translate the outcomes of these experiments to patients in a clinical study.

GEMMA is a research consortium comprising a total of sixteen public, private and patient institutions in Europe and the United States. This research is conducted within the research domain One Health, part of Utrecht University’s interdisciplinary research theme Life Sciences and the Future Food research hub from the research theme Pathways to Sustainability.