Recent years have seen a steady stream of scientific research find that the gut microbiome – the community of microorganisms that peacefully live in the human digestive tract – can have a surprisingly profound influence on people’s behavior.
Now, scientists at the Ohio State University have found further evidence to suggest that certain autism symptoms might be associated with a certain mix of gut bacteria. Building on their previous work, the new findings reinforce the theory that some autism symptoms – including behavioral symptoms – improve if a new bunch of bacteria is introduced into the gut via a poop transplant. Even more incredibly, the positive results appear to be long-lasting, continuing to have an effect even years after the fecal transplant.
The first leg of the study, published in the journal Microbiome, concluded last year. The researchers analyzed the gut biomes of 18 children (a fairly small sample size) with autism and gastrointestinal problems, as well as a group of children without autism as a control. They administered fecal transplants to the children over a course of a week and noted the results. In just eight weeks, the children with autism experienced improvements in both their behavioral and gastrointestinal symptoms.
“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," lead author Ann Gregory, a microbiology graduate student at the Ohio State University, said in a statement last year.
"Following treatment, we found a positive change in GI [gastrointestinal] symptoms and neurological symptoms overall."
Science News reports that the researchers presented a follow-up to this study at the Beneficial Microbes Conference this week. To the surprise of the researchers, the fecal transplants appeared to have a profound effect over two years after they were administered. According to their follow-up, scores on a gastrointestinal-symptom scale remained over 60 percent better than they were before the transplants. This prevailing effect was put down to the fact that the children managed to hold onto Prevotella and other beneficial bacteria gained from the transplant.
It’s undoubtedly remarkable stuff, but the results must not be overstated just yet; this is not a “cure” for autism. The researchers themselves concede that they tested the transplants on a very small number of children. Most crucially, there was also no definitive way for the study to prove that the behavioral improvements were a direct result of the transplant. Before any grand conclusions are reached, much more work is required to understand how fecal transplants work on a cellular level in regard to various conditions and ailments.
Still, the research holds real promise and, at the very least, provides another fascinating insight into the power of gut bacteria.