a mouseYou may have heard of probiotics—a friendly type of bacteria—before from your doctor or in certain yogurt commercials, but new research from Caltech had demonstrated that there may be applications for probiotics in the treatment of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). There is a subset of people with ASD who have gastrointestinal (GI) abnormalities that, research suggest, may be treatable with helpful bacteria. The Caltech team used probiotics to treat mice that had GI troubles and autism-like traits, which resulted in improvements in the mind and the stomach. This could indicate the utility of probiotics for treating humans with ASD.

The research team used a mouse model for autism that they had developed during previous research. For this study, they injected pregnant mice with a viral mimic, triggering an immune response in the mothers. The mice they gave birth to had GI issues and autism-like tendencies. One of the notable GI problems was a “leaky gut,” in which the intestinal wall is too permeable and allows metabolites to move into the bloodstream. To address the leaky gut, the “autistic” mice were injected with a probiotic, Bacteriodes fragiles.

Not only did the probiotic ameliorate the leaky gut issue, but the autism-like symptoms improved, too—the mice’s communication and sensorimotor skills demonstrated progress. “The B. fragilis treatment alleviates GI problems in the mouse model and also improves some of the main behavioral symptoms. This suggests that GI problems could contribute to particular symptoms in neurodevelopmental disorders,” explained Elaine Hsiao, senior research fellow and first author of the study.

These findings have the potential to lead to a probiotic treatment for ASD in humans. If the B. fragilis treatment affects humans comparable to the way it affects mice, then it would be possible to simultaneously treat the GI and behavioral issues associated with ASD—a major coup for any autism researcher. The results also suggest that there is a connection between the gut and the brain when it comes to autism, and even that autism might originate in the gut, rather than the brain. If this is the case, autism research may become much easier, since the stomach lacks the brain’s level of complexity.

This research is published in the journal Cell.

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