Despite the obvious downside, fecal transplants are a groundbreaking new therapy to treat GI issues where doctors take stool from a healthy human donor and transfer it to the body of a recipient, restoring the recipient's microbiome with good bacteria—straight from the source. And now, a small study by researchers at Ohio State University shows that fecal transplants greatly improve both gastrointestinal symptoms and behavioral symptoms in children with autism.
This is how it works.
This study included 18 autistic children (ranging from 7 to 16 years old) who experience moderate to severe GI distress. The children underwent two weeks of antibiotics to wipe out their own gut bacteria and then received a high-dose liquid form of donor stool for a week. For the rest of the treatment period the children drank smoothies with a lower-dose powder added. And while this is definitely cringe-worthy—it appears to have worked!
In the eight weeks after the treatment, the parents and doctors both reported positive changes in symptoms like diarrhea and stomach pain in the children. In fact, one of the questionnaires used to score and rank GI health showed an 82 percent decrease in GI symptoms. To analyze behavioral change they used a series of standardized questionnaires, one of which showed that the average developmental age increased by over a year during the treatment period.
The link between gut health and autism
Previous studies have shown that kids with autism usually have lower levels of gut bacteria and less bacterial diversity, which we are learning more and more is a sign of poor health. And it's not very common knowledge, but gastrointestinal distress and behavioral symptoms of autism often occur together, and normally the GI distress is pretty severe, so this study could reveal a path to increasing quality of life for a lot of people.
This study only included a small number of patients, meaning there's a higher risk for skewed results from bias and/or error, but the results justify a lot more research in this area and present a possible new frontier for autism, an elusive condition for which no pharmacologic treatment exists.
This is about way more than just autism.
If you don't know anyone with autism, these results should still matter to you. This study is just one example of the growing body of research that is connecting the microbiome to gut health, brain health, and human behavior. For example, some recent studies have drawn connections between gut health and the immune response and Alzheimer's disease.
And while ingesting someone else's stool sounds extreme, so many different illnesses are being linked to decreased bacterial count and diversity that it's likely you'll be seeing them more and more in the future.