Pat Levitt, PhD, W. M. Keck Provost Professor in pediatrics at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, has received a grant of nearly $1 million from advocacy organization Autism Speaks.

Funding will support research into the treatment of chronic constipation to improve behavioral symptoms associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Through clinics affiliated with Children¹s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA) and UC Irvine Medical Center, Levitt’s team will recruit 120 children between 5 and 12 who are affected by autism and have chronic constipation.

“We want to see if successful GI treatment helps children with ASD become more receptive to social interactions,” said Levitt, who is also Simms/Mann Chair in developmental neurogenetics at CHLA.

Upon enrolling in the study, children will be evaluated for GI disorders and for the communication or behavioral issues associated with ASD. They will be treated for their constipation and, at three-month intervals, they will be evaluated for changes in their constipation and changes in ASD symptoms.

The researchers will also measure a biomarker for oxidative stress, a metabolite called isoprostane, which past studies have shown is elevated in the subgroup of patients with both autism and severe constipation.

“We will measure the levels of isoprostane to see whether this measure of oxidative stress goes down as symptoms of autism and constipation improve,” Levitt said. “The results will show us if isoprostane is a reliable biomarker for severe GI disorders in these children, who often can¹t communicate that they are experiencing abdominal pain.”

Using data collected from children enrolled at other Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network sites for comparison, the researchers will track behavior and oxidative stress in children who have autism but are not affected by GI problems.

“It may well be that thoroughly addressing GI issues will significantly reduce the need for behavioral medications for many of our children,” said Paul Wang, Autism Speaks senior vice president and head of medical research.

Parents or physicians wishing to receive more information about enrolling a child in the study may email

— By Ellin Kavanagh/CHLA