Dear Dr. Debbie,
Is there a connection between digestive health and autism? My neighbor, whose seven-year-old has a diagnosis of autism, said she heard about new research using an intervention with microbacteria in the gut to reduce symptoms of autism. Is this for real?
Sounds Far Fetched
Autism diagnoses continue to rise – currently at about 1 in 59 children according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention – which could mean there is more awareness of symptoms, or that something (or more than one thing) has changed in our environment which causes autism. Symptoms of autism comprise: impairments in communication, deficits in social skills, and repetitive motor behaviors. A less natural diet and an increase in the use of antibiotics have become suspect.
Several research teams have been looking at the connection between intestinal health and the behaviors associated with autism. When a disorder impacts so many children, more scientists are impacted, too, and are therefore more likely to get involved. That’s what happened at Arizona State University.
Children with autism seem to have more gastrointestinal issues – diarrhea and constipation – than do typically developing children. This was intriguing to Dr. Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown who sought out her ASU colleague, Dr. James Adams, whose daughter has autism. Another colleague, Dae-Wook Kang, had been following a line of research which suggested that an imbalance between “good” and “bad” bacteria in the intestine is often responsible for gastrointestinal disorders. With about 1,000 known intestinal microbacteria, our digestive systems do best with diversity. In other words, where there is an adequate variety of bacteria, and a proper balance of “good” and “bad” bacteria, food is processed efficiently to promote overall good health.
Individuals with autism had been found to have about 25% fewer kinds of bacteria (less diversity) and are specifically deficient in a bacterium called Prevotella.
The ASU team’s small but promising research involved 18 children, all with moderate to severe autism and all with moderate to severe bowel issues. Microbacteria Transplant Therapy transferred “good” bacteria, cultivated from healthy donors, to the children in the study. This treatment not only improved the children’s intestinal health, it also provided both short-term and long-term decreases in autistic behavior – as much as two years (and counting) after the treatment.
Researchers from University of Southern California and UCLA, headed by Dr. Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, have been studying this, too. With a larger sample size, and a control group of children without diagnoses of autism, the California researchers are studying the “gut-brain axis.” Looking at the presence of various microbacteria, the team uses its analysis of stool samples to connect with patterns in the children’s behavior and their brain scans. They hope to learn how “gut bacteria activate central nervous system pathways and send biological signals back and forth, to and from the brain.”
Dr. Costa-Mattioli at the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas has been looking at the use of probiotics (naturally present in sauerkraut, pickles, yogurt, cheddar, mozzarella, and gouda cheeses, and other foods) to improve gut health and reduce symptoms of autism. Similar research is being conducted by Alessio Fasano, MD, chief of the division of pediatric gastroenterology and nutrition at the Massachusetts General Hospital for Children, and others .
This line of research could prove to be life changing for families, schools, and society. Some families have already made the switch to healthier diets including more fiber (associated with the Prevotella bacteria) and natural probiotics.
As Dr. Aziz-Zadeh says. “It really is a brand new frontier.”
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What do you think? Email your comments or questions to Dr. Debbie at editor[at]chesapeakefamily.com.