A new, albeit limited, study suggests that children with autism might benefit from a fecal transplant — a process that introduces donated healthy microbes in people who suffer from gastrointestinal problems in order to help rebalance the gut.
Previous studies have found that children with autism often have fewer types of important bacteria in their gut and less overall bacterial diversity.
“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 Ann Gregory, one of the study’s lead authors and a microbiology graduate student at The Ohio State University.
The study, published in the journal Microbiome, built upon previous research and found that when children with autism underwent a fecal transplant and subsequent treatment, the behavioral symptoms of autism and gastrointestinal distress improved.
The study gave antibiotics to 18 autistic children with moderate to severe gastrointestinal problems in order to clear out most of the flora in their gastrointestinal tracts. The participants, ages seven to 16, were then given liquid with large amounts of gut microbiota taken from fecal donors. Finally, the fecal transplants were done either rectally or orally.
For the next seven to eight weeks, the children drank smoothies that had smaller amounts of microbiota.
The researchers then surveyed the parents of the children, who reported a decrease in gut problems including diarrhea, just eight weeks after the end of treatment. The parents also said they saw an improvement in their children’s behavioral autism symptoms.
The children’s doctors were surveyed before, at the end, and eight weeks after the experimental treatment. The doctors reported a 22 percent decrease in behavioral autism symptoms at the end of the treatment, and a 24 percent decrease eight weeks after the treatment ended.
Overall, the children saw an improvement of 80 percent in gastrointestinal symptoms and a 25 percent improvement in behavioral symptoms.
“More research is needed before this can be used for treatment,” Gregory cautioned parents. “Microbiota should be very carefully screened, and the treatment should be done under medical supervision.”
Researchers admit that their study was limited because it only included a small number of participants. Additionally, the parents — who the researchers relied on for observations — knew that their children were being treated.
“We have to be mindful of the placebo effect, and we have to take it with a grain of salt,” Matthew Sullivan, study’s co-author and associate professor of Microbiology at Ohio State, said in a statement. “But it does give us hope.”
The research team hopes to get additional funding for a larger clinical trial.
Danielle Tarasiuk is a multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles. Her work has been published on AllDay.com, Yahoo! Sports, KCET, and NPR-affiliate stations KPCC and KCRW. She’s a proud Sarah Lawrence College and USC Annenberg alumn.