Groundbreaking Research Suggests that a Treatment for Autism May Come in the Form of a Probiotic


Groundbreaking research suggests that a treatment for autism may come in the form of a probiotic. 

Stress can send your stomach into a painful tailspin, causing cramps, spasms and grumbling. But trouble in the gut can also affect the brain. 

This two-way relationship may be an unlikely key to solving one of medicine’s most pressing — and perplexing — mysteries: autism. Nearly 60 years after the disorder was first identified, the number of cases has surged, and the United Nations estimates that up to 70 million people worldwide fall on the autism spectrum. Yet there is no known cause or cure.




But scientists have found promising clues in the gut. Research has revealed striking differences in the trillions of bacteria — a.k.a., the microbiome — in the intestines of children with and without autism. But the gut bacteria in individuals with autism aren’t just different. Researchers at the California Institute of Technology have shown for the first time that they may actually contribute to the disorder. They reported in the journal Cell in December 2013 that an experimental probiotic therapy alleviated autism-like behaviors in mice and are already planning a clinical trial.


Among the most common health complaints from children with autism? Gastrointestinal problems. Although estimates vary widely, some studies have concluded that up to 90 percent of children with autism suffer from tummy troubles. According to the CDC, they’re more than 3.5 times more likely to experience chronic diarrhea and constipationthan their normally developing peers.


Following these hints, Arizona State University researchers analyzed the gut bacteria in fecal samples obtained from children with and without autism. They found that participants with autism had many fewer types of bacteria, probably making the gut more susceptible to attack from disease-causing pathogens. Other studies have also found striking differences in the types and abundance of gut bacteria in patients with and without autism.

Elaine Hsiao Ted Talk

Elaine Hsiao Ted Talk


But is the gut microbiome in individuals with autism responsible for the disorder? To find out, Caltech postdoctoral researcher Elaine Hsiao engineered mice based on earlier studies showing that women who get the flu during pregnancy double their risk of giving birth to a child with autism. In the mouse model, pregnant females injected with a viral mimic gave birth to pups with autism-like symptoms, such as anxiety and aloofness. 


The mouse pups went on to develop so-called “leaky gut,” in which molecules produced by the gut bacteria flow into the blood and possibly to the brain — a condition also seen in children with autism. 


But how did these bacteria influence behavior? To find out, Hsiao analyzed the mice’s blood. The blood of “autistic” mice contained a whopping 46 times more 4EPS, a molecule produced by gut bacteria, thought to have come from their intestines. What’s more, injecting healthy mice with 4EPS made them more anxious. A similar molecule has been detected at elevated levels in patients with autism.


Hsiao then laced the animals’ food with B. fragilis, a priobiotic that’s been shown to treat GI problems in mice — and the results were jaw-dropping.


Five weeks later, the researchers saw that the leaky gut in “autistic” mice had sealed up, and the levels of 4EPS in their blood had steeply declined. They looked more like healthy mice – from the inside out. Not only did their gut microbiomes come to more closely resemble those of healthy mice, but they were also less anxious and no longer engaged in repetitive behaviors, like repetitive digging. They were more communicative, too.




But the treated mice remained aloof when a new mouse was placed in their cage. “This is a real limitation in the conclusions from this study as, in many ways, social interaction deficits are at the core … of autism,” Ted Abel, a professor of biology at the University of Pennsylvania, told B. fragilis would probably need to be supplemented with other therapies that address social impairments.


Slide from Elaine's Ted Talk

What’s more, a probiotic may only help the subset of patients with autism who experience GI problems, Hsiao said. And only a clinical trial will reveal whether the results also apply to humans. 


Still, autism researchers shouldn’t underestimate the importance of gut bacteria, said John Cryan, a professor of anatomy and neuroscience at University College Cork. In 2011, his group reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that probiotic-fed mice were less anxious and produced fewer stress hormones.“You have this kilo of microbes in your gut that’s as important as the kilo of nerve cells in your brain,” he said. “We need to do much more studies on autistic biota.” 


For people with autism and their families, however, even a supplemental therapy for a subset of sufferers is a huge step forward. “It’s really impactful, this notion that by changing the bacteria, you could ameliorate what’s often considered an intractable disorder,” Hsiao said. “It’s a really crazy notion and a big advance.” 



Personally I have a hypothesis that this, and dopamine (maybe seratonin, endorphine and testosterone) receptor density problem (due to period of those hormones' excess (read about nofap, for example)) may correlate to anxiety, OCD and other neurological disorders -- admin

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