Solving sleep problems for children diagnosed with autism

21 April 2023

Fat molecules are contributing to sleep disturbances in children diagnosed with autism, a University of Queensland and Mater Research Institute led study has found.

UQ Faculty of Medicine lead-author Dr Chloe Yap said the work was part of a major shift in autism research.

“Biological autism research to date has largely been focused on improving autism diagnosis as there’s no objective test for autism,” Dr Yap said.

“However, other research areas remain relatively neglected, despite being of great interest and direct importance to autistic people.

“Guided by these community priorities, we focused our work on co-occurring conditions that can create significant quality of life issues, such as sleep disturbances and feeding problems.”

The study involved the Australian Autism Biobank, an initiative of the Cooperative Research Centre for Living with Autism, ensuring the involvement of autistic people.

This research investigated a panel of 800 different fats (“the lipidome”) in the blood plasma of 765 children - 485 diagnosed with autism - and identified a potential causal link between poor sleep and long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids found in some foods. However, more work is required before clinical dietary recommendations can be made.

Mater Research Institute-UQ senior author and Associate Professor Jake Gratten said the study also found that the lipidome signatures of children with poor sleep were similar to those found in an unhealthy diet, offering a mechanism by which sleep problems contribute to poor health outcomes.

“This work highlights how important it is to screen for and manage sleep problems in children with neurodevelopmental differences,” Dr Gratten said.

The research efforts date back almost a decade, to when the Australian Autism Biobank was first conceived.

Dr Yap said the study involved a unique collaboration between clinicians, autism communities, and over 40 researchers from Mater Research, The University of Queensland, Telethon Kids Institute, University of New South Wales, La Trobe University, the Queensland Twin and Adolescent Brain Project, and the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute.

“Our findings are a testament to what can be achieved through collaboration between researchers and community groups,” Dr Yap said.

“In particular, we would like to thank the many autistic people and their families who generously contributed to this study, without whom this would not have been possible.”

This study is published in Nature Medicine. DOI: 10.1038/s41591-023-02271-1