A recent study offers more insight behind the connection between gut bacteria and its effects on autism.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 59 children were diagnosed with autism in the United States in 2018, which represents a 15% increase from two years prior. The U.S. numbers are reflected in worldwide trends as well. With the number of those affected growing, it becomes increasingly important to pinpoint the causes of the disorder that affects people socially, psychologically and emotionally.
While we know that in a majority of the cases, autism occurs because of some combination of genetics and possibly environmental influences in utero, new research is showing that gut bacteria may play a role as well. Could tinkering with one’s gut bacteria potentially prevent or alleviate the symptoms of the disorder?
This is exactly what Dr. Costa-Mattioli and his team have been testing with lab mice since 2016 at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. They’ve separated mice into four groups:
- Mice genetically modified to be autistic
- Mice exposed to valproic acid (a drug that treats bipolar disorder and migraines, but has induced autism in fetuses)
- Mice stripped of all gut bacteria
- Mice with BTBR (a bacterial strain that causes autistic traits)
They laced the mice’s water with the bacteria L. reuteri at three weeks old to test the effects of this treatment on their social behavior, while leaving a control group with pure water. For four weeks, they collected stool samples to document the levels of gut bacteria and then put them to the test at seven weeks old. The test offered the mice an option to enter part of the cage with another unknown mouse or to enter a chamber with an empty wire cup. Under all tests, the mice who had been drinking the water laced with the bacteria proved to be more social and interacted with the unknown mouse more frequently.
What does this mean for the future of autism?
Only time will tell because the disorder is clearly complex; however, the research is being replicated around the world, including at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and at the California Institute of Technology. The scientists are remaining cautionary as no one should be testing this bacteria on their children by themselves, which is specifically why they have yet to release the specific names of the bacterial strains used. Dr. Costa-Mattioli plans to publish another paper soon, so we’ll keep an eye out to see what more information is gleaned from this hopeful study.