A new study suggests that the gut microbiome may hold the key to a potential treatment for autism. The gut microbiota is the collection of microorganisms living inside our body. We have tens of trillions of microbes living in our guts, totaling more than 3 million genes. Our gut microbiomes are imperative for our immunity and overall health. They act as a barrier against other harmful microorganisms, and they aid with digestion and the production of some vitamins.
Previous research has suggested that the composition of the microbiome influences the development of certain diseases, including: irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, deadly bacteria infections, and enterocolitis. Some research has even connected the composition and diversity of the gut microbiome with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). ASD is a developmental disability affecting around 1 in 68 children in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
A new study, published in the journal Microbiome, investigates autism therapy options by improving the gut microbiome. The study, consisting of an open-label clinical test, was a collective effort between The University of Minnesota, Arizona State University (ASU), and Ohio State University. The team was led by James Adams, ASU President’s Professor of materials science and engineering, along with two other ASU professors: Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown and Dae-Wook Kang.
The team collected 18 study participants with ASD, aged between 7 and 16, who underwent a 10-week treatment consisting of antibiotics, bowel cleansing, and an extended fecal microbiota transplant. More specifically, the scientists administered an antibiotic treatment for 2 weeks, a bowel cleanse, and a fecal microbiota transplant that used a high dose in the first couple of weeks, and then lower, daily doses for the remaining 8 weeks.
Fecal microbial transplantation is a form of treatment shown to be effective for treating Clostridium difficile infections. During the procedure, fecal matter is collected from the stool of a carefully selected, healthy donor and transplanted into the colon of a patient using a variety of methods, including orally-administered capsules, colonoscopy, or endoscopy. For this trial, researchers used a donor microbiome that contained 1,000 different species of gut bacteria, and implemented a treatment regimen previously shown to be efficacious in treating C. difficile infection.
The trial involved 14 days of treatment with vancomycin, which were followed by a 12-24 hour fasting period during which participants had a bowel cleansing. Then, the gut microbiota was repopulated by administering a high dose of standardized human gut microbiota (SHGM) orally or rectally. Finally, the patients received daily, lower doses of the SHGM, together with a stomach acid suppressant for 7-8 weeks. Participants were then clinically followed for another 8 weeks after the therapy ended, in order to determine whether the effects of the treatment were long-lasting or temporary. The conclusions were believed to be “compelling” and “promising” by the researchers. The treatment showed an 80% reduction of gastrointestinal symptoms previously associated with ASD. It also showed compelling improvements in behavioral ASD symptoms, such as sleep habits and social skills. Diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain, and indigestion all declined during the therapy, as well as 8 weeks after the treatment ended. Behavioral improvements also persisted during the 8-week follow-up period.