TEMPE, AZ — Newly published research from Arizona State University could hold clues to finding the cure for autism.
"There's been a lot of research that shows that there's a connection between the gut and the brain," said Dr. Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown, who is a part of the team that conducted a study involving microbiota transfer therapy, more commonly referred to as a "fecal transplant."
"About 10 years ago we started looking at just differences in these microbes in kids with autism and kids that are typically developing," she told ABC15, "and we saw that there were differences, and some of the differences were that [kids with autism] were missing beneficial microbes."
During the study, fecal bacteria from healthy individuals was introduced to 18 kids, all with autism and gastrointestinal problems. Krajmalnik-Brown said the team found people living with autism are more likely to have GI issues, another reason for the research.
Participants received an initial, high dose of "heavily sanitized" microbes and eight weeks of smaller, daily doses. The bacteria was first introduced either rectally or orally, then consumed daily in a liquid solution mixed with chocolate milk.
Two years after completing the study, the ASU team found participants' GI symptoms were reduced by around 80 percent and autism symptoms were reduced around 45 percent.
"This is fascinating because we didn't expect that kind of improvement," Dr. Dae-Wook Kang, lead author of the research, told ABC15.
Ben Bonaroti, now 15 years old, took part in the study after a recommendation from his personal doctor.
"When I first heard about it, I was a little skeptical," said Ben's mother, Heidi. Still, days after beginning the therapy, she started noticing a difference in her son.
"He would not get up in the middle of the night, the lights would not be on; over the second week, the lights were off all week and he stopped wetting the bed," she said.
Heidi said other symptoms and behaviors, like compulsive hand flapping, were also reduced. Ben's eye contact and overall communication greatly improved, she said.
"Ben has come so far and we've had so many angels on our journey and I know if it weren't for God putting those angels on our path he wouldn't be where he is today."
The ASU team stressed while they are "excited" about the results, this is not yet a viable treatment. Additional trials are needed with more participants and a placebo-control arm. The team is currently conducting a similar study on adults with autism.
"From what we're doing we could learn mechanisms and we could learn potential causes and potential therapies that might be more specific in the future," Krajmalnik-Brown said.