Can Gut Bacteria Help Autism?

New research suggests that successfully treating the bacteria that inhabit the gut may help to ease the symptoms of autism. A study carried out by researchers at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, in the United States, treated children with autism who had severe digestive problems.

The mixture of bacteria that inhabit intestines is known as the gut microbiome. It can affect our health in many ways, but new findings show that keeping it healthy may lead to an improved quality of life for people on the autism spectrum.

stomach

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Healthy bacteria

Children who took part in the medical study were treated by having bacteria from a healthy individual transplanted into their gut. Prior to the treatment, they had stomach pains, diarrhoea and constipation. The transplant not only alleviated their digestive symptoms, it also improved their symptoms of autism.

Behavioural improvements were noted immediately after the treatment and continued in the long term. Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown, the study’s senior author, said the improvement in behaviour continued during the two-year follow-up period – the children’s gastrointestinal symptoms didn’t return either.

Researchers aren’t yet sure how improving the microbiome helps the symptoms of autism. They believe that because all of the children taking part in the study had digestive issues, they may have simply felt more comfortable, less distracted and more able to learn and focus following the treatment.

 

Digestive problems

Between 30% and 50% of people with autism have digestive problems. The researchers said this may make them irritable and less likely to behave well, but researchers also suggest that the healthier micro-organisms in the gut may release chemicals to the brain that help children to learn.

The children taking part in the study received the bacteria transplant daily for around eight weeks. At the start of the study, 83% of the participants were classed as having “severe” autism. By the end of the study, only 17% were still classed as severe, 39% were classed as having moderate or mild autism and 44% were below the cut-off point for mild autism spectrum disorder.

 

Historic research

The latest study is part of a long line of research into autism, dating back to 1943 when psychiatrist and physician Leo Kanner described a pattern of behaviour which he described as “early infantile autism”.

The next major study in 1966 was carried out by Dr Victor Lotter, who screened children aged eight to ten in Middlesex to identify those on the autism spectrum. He estimated an autism prevalence rate of 4.5 per 10,000 children.

The latest research into the link between gut bacteria and autism suggests that problematic gut bacteria might be triggering inflammation that reaches the brain and contributes to autism symptoms, although this isn’t conclusive yet. Further research is needed before the findings can have a major impact on treatments in the future.

The current treatment plan for people with autism is individually tailored to the person’s specific needs and can involve a combination of behavioural treatments and medication.

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