Biology

Fecal transplant improves autism symptoms

Could the key to helping autistic children lie in their gut?
Could the key to helping autistic children lie in their gut?
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Could the key to helping autistic children lie in their gut?
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Could the key to helping autistic children lie in their gut?

While many people are aware of the behavioral symptoms associated with autism, probably not so many realize that people with autism often also have gastrointestinal problems. With that in mind, scientists at the University of Arizona recently conducted a study in which a group of 18 autistic children received fecal transplants from donors with healthy gastrointestinal systems. Not only did the procedure help to "rebalance" their gut flora, but it also improved their behavior.

First of all, a fecal transplant is just what it sounds like. Feces from one person are screened for disease-causing organisms, and then introduced into the recipient's digestive tract. In this case, the recipients first took antibiotics for two weeks, to wipe out their existing gut flora. They then received the fecal transplant initially in a high-dose liquid form, after which it was delivered in a lower-dose powder mixed into smoothies.

Such transplants have worked in the past for other people with gastrointestinal problems, and they did so in this case, too. In the eight weeks following the end of the treatment, parents reported a substantial decrease in their children's bouts of gut problems such as diarrhea and stomach pain.

Interestingly, though, they also observed substantial improvements in their behaviour. Using questionnaires designed to assess social skills, irritability, hyperactivity, communication and other factors, it was found that the average developmental age of the children (aged 7 to 16 years) increased by an average of 1.4 years.

This was backed up by observations from the children's doctors, who noted that their psychological autism symptoms had decreased 22 percent by the end of the treatment, and by 24 percent eight weeks later.

Their gut flora, meanwhile, now consisted of the same viruses and bacteria as that of a non-autistic control group that also received the transplants. Ordinarily autistic children tend to have less of some types of important bacteria, and less bacterial diversity overall, likely due to their being put on antibiotics early in life.

Previous research has suggested that gut flora has an effect on how the brain works, and that certainly seems like it could be the case here. The way in which it does so, though, is still not fully understood.

The study, which was led by Ann Gregory (who is now a microbiology graduate student at The Ohio State University) and Matt Sullivan, along with researchers from Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University, is described in a paper recently published in the journal Microbiome. The scientists are currently seeking funding to conduct a larger-scale study.

Source: The Ohio State University

13 comments
DavidMiles
Sample size of 18? I'm throwing the BS flag on this play.
SummerBreez
Amazing and had a suspicious feeling this was a causative factor,these folks need to do a thorough blood screening of cellular sized bacteria .That may be causing additional long term difficiancies in immu icological function. That may have attached themselves to DNA strand. Perhaps stem cell modification of genome may be in order. LOL Your welcome.
XimenaDuffell
How about this theory - the autstics gut flora lacks bacteria to break down oxalates both from food and from yests in gut. A leaky gut caused by antibiotics allows the oxalate chrystals in to the blood and they irritate the brain.
LanceShaver
@DavidMiles This appears to be an early-stage proof-of-concept trial that has built on previous observations in animal models. I'm sure there are at least a few, but the one I'm thinking of was conducted in 2013 on mice showing fascinating results: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2013.11.024 I'm glad to see this potential treatment finally reaching testing stages in humans, and am excited to see where it will go next.
KaiserPingo
The key-element is this : "...likely due to their being put on antibiotics early in life."
Firehawk70
If there is correlation found here, then maybe we should examine the time frame when doctors were more likely to give certain types of antibiotics to infants. Or the fact the amoxicillin took the place of penicillin in the early 80s. Besides better identification of autism, it does still seem possible that something changed that raised the rate of autism. I know that hyperactivity has been tied to tonsils and sleep clinics are now filled with kids with apnea-lite. They take out the tonsils and the kids are off of Ritalin. Being overtired from apnea was essentially the cause of hyperactivity. The one I go to sometimes has more kids than adults for sleep studies.
McDesign
I understand that well over half of the neurons in our bodies are in our gut - could this be the reason for the success?
EbenKeel
I wouldn't say it was totally due to antibiotics in early life, my son is on the spectrum and has never been given antibiotics nor a single vaccine...he does however have a very limited diet, obviously that is a big contributing factor toward lack of bacterial diversity.
Laurie Czerwinski
What a great research study! Imagine a child with gut problems; that would cause irritable behavior
MK23666
Hmmm ... I wonder if this could have a positive effect on the various types of anxieties?