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Posted on: April 17, 2019 at 6:05 pm

The human microbiome is made up of genetic material consisting of various microbes, including bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and fungi. The amalgamation of these has greater complexity than the human genome itself. As we discover more about how our internal microbial environment (our microbiome) is involved in our health, we see that by supporting or modulating this environment we can positively influence our health. Supporting our microbiome can have a multitude of benefits, and now there is some evidence that it may help reduce symptoms of autism.

Although there are plenty of theories, to date, there is still no accepted single cause for autism. Research on Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) still continues and the most probable causes include factors such as our genes, environment and the brain [1].

When it comes to treatment there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach. Since there is no cure, treatments aim to help both the patient and family to cope more efficiently with the symptoms. Various therapies can be used ranging from behavioral and communication therapies to educational and family therapies. No medications exist to address ASD’s core symptoms, however, some may be prescribed to help control related symptoms [1]. Dietary approaches have also been used to help reduces symptoms [2][3]. At this point, there is no medical treatment that has been approved to address the core symptoms of ASD [4].

However, a new treatment may be on the horizon and is giving hope to those with ASD.  Research conducted at Arizona State University has been looking at the effects of microbiota transfer therapy (MTT), a type of therapy that includes a Fecal Microbiota Transplant (FMT). FMT is the transfer of stool from a healthy donor into the gastrointestinal tract of the patient.

It has the potential to alter the gut ecosystem to improve gastrointestinal and autism symptoms.

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MTT is slightly different from FMT and has several phases, according to the study it consists of a “two-week vancomycin [an antibiotic] treatment followed by a bowel cleanse and then high dose FMT for 1–2 days and 7–8 weeks of daily maintenance doses along with a stomach-acid suppressant, administered to children with ASD and chronic gastrointestinal problems[5]

Transforming the microbiome of children diagnosed with ASD may decrease the severity of their condition. However, as you may have noticed, this new research doesn’t revolve around taking supplemental probiotics and courses of antibiotics, instead, they’re performing MTT, which is much more intensive.  

This treatment has been shown to provide positive effects for children on the autism spectrum. Results included improvements for digestion and continued improvements for autistic symptoms [5]

Arizona State University began a study to test the effects of this therapy two years ago. They used a customized process to provide 18 children aged between 7 and 16 a whole new deposit of microorganisms.

All of these volunteers had both an autism diagnosis, combined with moderate to severe gastrointestinal problems. This study also included a group of 20 equivalent control subjects who had neither gut problems nor an ASD diagnosis.

In this study, both groups were treated for 10 weeks and then they had follow-up sessions for another 8-weeks.

These ASD children not only experienced an 80% reduction in gastrointestinal symptoms, but they also showed a significant improvement when tested using common ASD diagnostic tools.

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In order for this to be considered as a potential therapy, long term improvements needed to be recognized.

Two years after the treatment had stopped, a follow up was conducted on the participants. Even at this point, the children still had an average of  58% reduction in GI symptoms. Standard ASD diagnostic tools also concluded that 83% of the initial test group would be categorized as severe on the autistic spectrum. Two years later, this dropped to just 17%.

Amazingly, 44% no longer made the cut-off for being on the mild end of the spectrum at all. Overall, the evaluator determined the severity of ASD traits was reduced by 47%.

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This form of therapy may be capable of remarkable improvements without any side-effects. For those who struggle with ASD, this treatment will continue to attract attention and undergo further research.

While we may think of the brain when we think of neurological issues, there is this physical and chemical connection between your gut and brain. Neurotransmitters and other chemicals that are produced in your gut also affect your brain, and by altering the types of bacteria in your gut, it may also be possible to improve your brain health [6]

Those on the autism spectrum typically have defining characteristics such as impaired communication and social skills, sensory challenges and reduced motor control. More than half of those with ASD also have significant digestive issues and disturbances [7].

While the gut may seem like an odd place to begin developing treatments to assist with a neurological condition such as autism, this research indicates just how influential our gut microbiome is and how it affects our neurological health and digestive system.

  1. Autism Spectrum Disorder https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/autism-spectrum-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20352928
  2. Caseine and Gluten-Free Diets for Autism  https://www.webmd.com/brain/autism/gluten-free-casein-free-diets-for-autism#1GAPS Diet  https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/gaps-diet#section9
  3. GAPS Diet https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/gaps-diet#section9
  4. CDC: Autism Spectrum Disoder (ASD) Treatment https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/treatment.html
  5. Long-term benefit of Microbiota Transfer Therapy on autism symptoms and gut microbiota https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-42183-0#ref-CR37
  6. The Gut-Brain Connection: How it Works and The Role of Nutrition https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/gut-brain-connection
  7. American Academy of Pediatrics: Gastrointestinal problems common in children with autism  https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/05/100502080234.htm

 

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