By Serena Gordon
FRIDAY, April 12, 2019 (HealthDay News) – Scientists suspect that your gut microbiome – the mixture of bacteria that lives in your intestines – affects your health in many ways – but a surprising new discovery suggests that a healthy microbiome could even occur relax the symptoms of autism.
The small study of 18 autistic children also suffering from severe digestive problems revealed that a fecal transplant intended to rebalance their intestinal microbiome reduced both their digestive symptoms and their autistic symptoms. Improvements persisted during the two-year follow-up study period.
"We treated children with autism by modifying the gut microbiota, all of whom had gastrointestinal symptoms (diarrhea, constipation, stomach pain), dramatically reduced symptoms, and improved behavior." said Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown, lead author of the study. She is a professor at the Biodesign Institute of Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona.
"When we re-checked two years later, the behavior was even better and the gastrointestinal symptoms were much better, but not as good as after the treatment," she said.
Krajmalnik-Brown said that it was not clear how the improvement of the microbiome could help the symptoms of autism. As all children had serious digestive problems, she stated that it was possible that they "would be more comfortable and better able to concentrate and learn", she suggested.
It may also be that healthier microorganisms in the gut can send chemicals to the brain that help children learn and connect, she added.
The researchers noted that 30% to 50% of people with autism also had chronic digestive problems that could make them irritable and make learning, alertness and good behavior difficult.
Children treated in the study had a low diversity of bacteria in their intestines early in the study. All 18 received the fecal transplant daily for seven to eight weeks.
The treatment has increased the diversity of microbes and healthy bacteria in the intestine, according to the researchers.
At the beginning of the study, 83% of children had been classified as suffering from severe autism. At the end of the study, only 17% were severe, 39% mild or moderate and 44% below the threshold for mild autism spectrum disorder, revealed the results.
A professional assessment of children's symptoms revealed a 45% decrease in autism symptoms compared to the beginning of the study.
Many of the study participants had multiple factors that could create a less diverse microbiome. For example, many are born by cesarean section, which is associated with fewer intestinal bacteria. The researchers added that other factors were the reduction in breastfeeding, the increased use of antibiotics and the low fiber consumption.
Dr. Andrew Adesman, Head of Pediatrics Development and Behavior at Cohen Children's Medical Center in New Hyde Park, New York, reviewed the results of the study.
He said: "Although parents of autistic children frequently note that their children have significant gastrointestinal problems, this study suggests that changing bacteria in the intestine can lead to a lasting improvement in the symptoms of autism in the child ".
However, Adesman said that it was important to remember that the study did not involve a placebo group and that all children and parents knew that they were receiving the treatment.
In addition, he noted that only children with autism and serious digestive problems were included in the study. It is not clear if this treatment would be helpful for children with autism who do not have digestive problems.
Adesman and Krajmalnik-Brown agreed that further study of this treatment was needed.
Krajmalnik-Brown said that parents who wish to improve their child's microbiome may try to give them a more diverse diet, including more fiber from foods such as fruits and vegetables.
She stressed that no one should attempt treatment at home study. "This has been done under very controlled conditions, and improperly it could cause gastrointestinal infections," said Krajmalnik-Brown.
The results were published online on April 9 in the journal Scientific reports.