Probiotics — live healthy bacterial cultures found in yogurt and other foods — have been shown to ease symptoms associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
In new research involving mice, scientists at the California Institute of Technology found the introduction of healthy gut bacteria can influence autism-like behaviors.
"Traditional research has studied autism as a genetic disorder and a disorder of the brain, but our work shows that gut bacteria may contribute to ASD-like symptoms in ways that were previously unappreciated," said Sarkis K. Mazmanian, a professor of biology who helped conduct the study published in the journal Cell. "Gut physiology appears to have effects on what are currently presumed to be brain functions."
Individuals with ASD often have difficulty with social interactions and communication, but research has also shown many also suffer from gastrointestinal issues, like abdominal cramps and constipation.
The new study found that a bacterium in probiotics — Bacteroides fragilis, which has been used as an experimental probiotic therapy — eased behavioral symptoms in autistic-like mice. Specifically, treated mice were more likely to communicate with other mice, had reduced anxiety, and were less likely to engage in repetitive behaviors typical in ASD sufferers.
The findings suggest probiotic therapy might help to treat autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders.
The researchers now plan to test the probiotic treatment on people with ASD in clinical trials they expect to begin within the next year or two.
"Autism is such a heterogeneous disorder that the ratio between genetic and environmental contributions could be different in each individual," Mazmanian noted. "Even if B. fragilis ameliorates some of the symptoms associated with autism, I would be surprised if it's a universal therapy — it probably won't work for every single case."
The study was funded, in part, by the National Institutes of Health.
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