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Treating autism by targeting the gut

Experts have called for large-scale studies into altering the make-up of bacteria in the gut, after a review showed that this might reduce the symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Until now, caregivers have relied on rehabilitation, educational interventions and drugs to reduce ASD symptoms, but now researchers suggest that treating this condition could be as simple as changing their diet.

A review of more than 150 papers on ASD and gut bacteria found that since the 1960s, scientists have been reporting links between the composition of bacteria in the gut and autistic behaviour. The review highlights many studies showing that restoring a healthy balance in gut bacteria can treat ASD symptoms.

“To date, there are no effective therapies to treat this range of brain developmental disorders,” explains Dr. Qinrui Li of Peking University, China. “The number of people being diagnosed with ASD is on the rise. As well as being an expensive condition to manage, ASD has a huge emotional and social cost on families of sufferers.”

The link between the gut and ASD is well-known among sufferers: problems like diarrhea, constipation, and flatulence are commonly reported. The root of gastro-intestinal problems like these is an imbalance of “good” and “bad” bacteria in the gut.

According to the author, ASD could be a result of both genetic and environmental factors. The environmental factors include the overuse of antibiotics, maternal obesity and diabetes during pregnancy, delivery procedure and breastfeeding period. All of these can affect the balance of bacteria in an infant’s gut, so are risk factors for ASD.

However, the researchers found a significant body of evidence that reverting the gut microbiota to a healthy state can reduce ASD symptoms.

The findings could be a breakthrough in the treatment of this disorder. However, the researchers believe that the studies are too few and too small, and that new clinical trials are needed to take this research to the next level.

The authors hope that their review leads to research on the link between the gut microbiota and ASD, and eventually to affordable and effective treatment.

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