Fecal transplant offers hope for autistic kids
Washington : In this new era of medical therapy dawning, fecal transplants are poised to help fight a range of conditions, from deadly super bugs to obesity and now, autism is in the firing line.
Children with autism may benefit from fecal transplants a method of introducing donated healthy microbes into people with gastrointestinal disease to rebalance the gut, a new University of Arizona study has found.
Behavioural symptoms of autism and gastrointestinal distress often go hand-in-hand and both improved when a small group of children with the disorder underwent fecal transplant and subsequent treatment.
In the study of 18 children with autism and moderate to severe gastrointestinal problems, parents and doctors said they saw positive changes that lasted at least eight weeks after the treatment. Children without autism were included for comparison of bacterial and viral gut composition prior to the study.
"Transplants are working for people with other gastrointestinal problems. And, with autism, gastrointestinal symptoms are often severe, so we thought this could be potentially valuable," said lead author Ann Gregory.
"Following treatment, we found a positive change in GI symptoms and neurological symptoms overall," she said.
A growing body of research is drawing connections between the bacteria and viruses that inhabit the gut and problems in the brain, and it is possible the two are tied together in an important way in autism, she said.
Previous research has established that children with autism typically have fewer types of some important bacteria in their guts and less bacterial diversity overall a difference that held true in this study. That could be because many of them are prescribed a lot of antibiotics in the first three years of life, the research team wrote in the study.
Parents of the children not only reported a decrease in gut woes including diarrhea and stomach pain in the eight weeks following the end of treatment: They also said they saw significant changes for the better when it came to behavioral autism symptoms in their sons and daughters, who ranged from 7 to 16 years old.
Fecal transplantation is done by processing donor feces and screening it for disease-causing viruses and bacteria before introducing it into another person's gastrointestinal tract.
In this study, the researchers used a method called microbiota transfer therapy, which started with the children receiving a two-week course of antibiotics to wipe out much of their existing gut flora. Then, doctors gave them an initial high-dose fecal transplant in liquid form. In the seven to eight weeks that followed, the children drank smoothies blended with a lower-dose powder.
There currently exists no approved pharmaceutical treatment for autism.
James Adams, one of the study's lead authors and an Arizona State University professor who specializes in autism, called the results compelling, but cautioned that larger, more rigorous studies confirming benefits must be done before the approach could be used widely.
Limitations of this study include its small size. The children and their parents also knew they were receiving the experimental treatment (neither the researchers nor the subjects were blinded to that) and the researchers relied heavily on parents' observations, both of which open the door for false perceived benefits.
The research team cautioned that families should not try to replicate the experimental treatment on their own, as it could harm children if done improperly.
The study appears in Microbiome.