Can Probiotics Ease the Symptoms of Autism?

medicineAutism is a complex disorder that usually presents alongside other co-occurring medical issues. It is well-known in the autism community that gastrointestinal issues are common in children and adults on the autism spectrum. There has been research on the effectiveness of special diets and various supplements, with mixed results, but recently probiotics are showing promise.

Probiotics are vitamins that contain “good” bacteria which is beneficial to the digestive system. Sometimes, certain types of harmful bacteria may overgrow, due to diet or antibiotic use, resulting in a condition called dysbiosis. Taking a probiotic can replace the beneficial bacteria and eliminate the harmful bacteria.

Studies on mice have shown promising results. Alessio Fasano, M.D., chief of the division of pediatric gastroenterology and nutrition and director of the Mucosal Biology and Immunology Research Center and the Center for Celiac Research at the Massachusetts General Hospital for Children, says,

“In animal models, we have identified certain kinds of bacteria that are abundant in mice with autism-like symptoms. Now, by studying the stool of children with autism, we are trying to confirm what we are seeing in animals. . . .

“We have evidence that giving probiotics to mice with autism-like symptoms improves their behaviors as it improves their dysbiosis. But such findings are preliminary. We can’t automatically apply them to people.”

Another study by Professor Glen Gibson at Reading University, UK, followed 40 children with autism, ages 4 to 8. Half were given the probiotic bacteria L. Plantanum, while the other half received a placebo. The children were supposed to switch medications halfway through the study, but the results were so dramatic that the parents whose children received the probiotic refused to take them off it.  Prof. Gibson said,

“It was really very challenging for us and the parents.

“The trial ultimately failed because of the large number of drop-outs.”

Due to the high drop-out rate, Professor Gibson was unable to reach any firm, scientific conclusions.

Stories like this may encourage parents to try giving their child a probiotic just to see if there are any changes. Dr. Fasano discourages parents for several reasons. He says,

“While I’m extremely sympathetic to parents who want to help relieve their children’s distress, I think we have yet to reach the point where we can say, ‘yes, let’s give probiotics a try in children.'”

He expresses concern that overuse of probiotics could lead to probiotic-resistant bacteria, like the antibiotic resistant bacteria that resulted from overuse of penicillin. He also notes that probiotics are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a medication, so there is little quality control.

Dr. Fasano says,

“If you want to give your child probiotics, I recommend you avoid concentrated supplements and instead give your child a probiotic yogurt. If you are intent on giving probiotic supplements, check the label for the amount of viable microorganisms in the supplement. The number should be in the billions. Finally, if you don’t see a clear improvement in a few weeks, stop using it.”