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What's Next in Probiotics for Autism?

As studies lend support to parent reports of benefits, many questions remain about the use of probiotics
December 06, 2013

Posted by Jessica Sachs, Autism Speaks director of science communications and the author of Good Germs, Bad Germs, published by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.

Here at Autism Speaks, we’ve seldom seen a mouse study generate the kind of excitement that we’re getting around yesterday’s “probiotic” study out of the California Institute of Technology.

In an elegant experiment, the researchers used a mouse model of autism to show that …

a) these mice had an abnormal mix of intestinal bacteria along with inflamed, “leaky” colons and

b) feeding the mice a bacterium abundant in a healthy human colon reduced the intestinal inflammation as well as the autism-like behaviors.

When I began writing about “good germs vs. bad germs” nearly 10 years ago, I knew of only one autism researcher – Derrick MacFabe of Ontario's Western University – publishing on the subject.

Today Autism Speaks is supporting a number of related research projects – including the CalTech study behind yesterday’s headline-grabbing report

So now what? Does this mean our families should be shilling out bucks for expensive probiotics or at least feeding their kids probiotic foods such as yogurt? If so, what kinds of products should they be using?

We know all too well that findings in animals don’t necessarily translate to humans. Still many families feel strongly about getting some long-awaited scientific support for their positive experiences with probiotic foods and supplements. The same can be said of some prominent gastroenterologists who’ve been using short-term courses of probiotics to ease intestinal inflammation in patients with autism.

For good reason, one of the most enduringly popular posts on our website is “Guidance on Probiotics,” by gastroenterologist Alessio Fasano. I recommend it highly, as all of Dr. Fasano’s insights remain as relevant today as when we posted his blog last year.

The bottom line is that science can’t yet provide us with solid guidance on whether probiotics will ease autism symptoms in children or adults with autism. Anecdotally, it’s looking like the right probiotics can help some individuals. But we don’t yet know which probiotics or how to identify those who will benefit. And probiotics are certainly not a full answer for anyone.

While this lack of clear-cut guidance is no doubt frustrating, it’s exciting to see research in this field accelerating at an exponential rate.

While we’re waiting for the results to come in, we do know that probiotic foods such as yogurt are widely recognized as safe. As for probiotic supplements, a small but growing number have shown themselves safe and effective for relieving other medical conditions. For now, autism experts including Dr. Fasano caution against their long-term use in children with ASD – until we understand more about their effects in this population.

Meanwhile, please keep reaching out with your questions. We’ll be inviting more experts to provide more perspective in our “Got Questions?” blog. I also encourage you to explore these related Autism Speaks news stories and research projects:

* 'Good' Bacteria Ease Autism Behaviors in Mouse Model
* Guidance on Probiotics
* Defining the Underlying Biology of Gastrointestinal Dysfunction in Autism
* Molecular analysis of gene-environment interactions in the intestines of children with autism
* Spotlight on the Gut Bacteria-Brain Connectiom in Autism
* Study: Kids with Autism Have Fewer Kinds of Gut Bacteria
* New Insight into Autism and Intestinal Problems

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