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Study Finds Fecal Transplants Improve Autism and Gut Symptoms in Children

For years it has been known that most children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have all sorts of gastrointestinal (GI) problems (e.g., constipation, diarrhea, stomach pain, food intolerance), and the more severe the autism, the more severe the GI problems. Recent studies suggested that a major factor in this are abnormal gut bacteria, with the gut microbial community out of whack (dysbiosis). Previous studies looking at the gut microbiome of children with autism have shown lower diversity and lower amounts (abundances) of certain bacteria in children with autism compared to neurologically normal (neurotypical) children.

A recent study of children with autism spectrum disorder found that giving the children a fecal microbiota transplant (FMT) led to significant and lasting improvements in both gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms and autism-related behaviors and symptoms. A fecal microbiota transplant (FMT) is a transplant of fecal matter from a healthy donor to the recipient. A fecal microbial transplant contains approximately a thousand bacterial species that live in a healthy gut, as well as other microbes such as viruses and fungi. FMTs have so far been an amazingly successful treatment for recurrent Clostridium difficile infections, and are now being looked at as promising treatments of chronic inflammatory diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease.

The researchers were surprised to see an 80% improvement in gastrointestinal symptoms, especially abdominal pain, indigestion, diarrhea, and constipation. They also saw about a 25% improvement in autism related behaviors and symptoms which persisted for 8 weeks after treatment stopped, which is when the study ended. One measurement of adaptive behaviors (such as communication, daily living skills, and socialization) found that the average developmental age increased by 1.4 years after treatment. The researchers also found that there was a "rebalancing" of the gut microbes following treatment. They found evidence of "successful partial engraftment of donor microbiota and beneficial changes in the gut environment" - meaning they could see that donor microbes were living in the gut. Also, overall bacterial diversity increased (which is good) and the abundance of certain bacteria increased (including Bifidobacterium, Prevotella, and Desulfovibrio), and these changes persisted until the end of the study.

The researchers caution that this was a small trial, that there could be placebo effects, and so the results should be "cautiously interpreted and viewed as preliminary." But nonetheless, the results are exciting. Really exciting. From Science Daily:

Autism symptoms improve after fecal transplant, small study finds

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 study has found. Behavioral 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.

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....One of those tools showed the average developmental age increased by 1.4 years after treatment. 

Researchers also were able to document a rebalancing of the gut following treatment. At the end of the study, the bacterial diversity in the children with autism was indistinguishable from their healthy peers. The study also included a unique viral analysis by Ohio State scientists, made possible because of previous work in the world's oceans. Gregory, who is particularly interested in the interplay between viruses and bacteria, used genetic testing to examine the viral diversity in the guts of the treated children. It rebounded quickly, and became more similar to the donor's microbiome. "Those donor viruses seemed to help," she said.

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[Original study.]

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