Supplements, worms and stool: How families are trying to game the gut to treat autism traits
Every two weeks, Alex Chinitz swallows the strangest of brews: fruit juice with 20 to 30 larvae of Hymenolepis diminuta mixed in. That fancy Latin word is the name of a helminth — a tapeworm, to be precise — that can grow to 30 centimeters.
Research on the microbiome — the collection of microbes that live in and on the body — is still in its infancy, says Mauro Costa-Mattioli, professor of neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. Just the idea that microbes could influence the brain was “unthinkable a few years ago,” he says. The pace of research has accelerated over the past few years, but microbe-based medicines are not yet in sight.
Still, many parents and clinicians are not waiting. A growing number are experimenting with specialized diets, probiotics, stool transplants and parasites, trying to game the gut to address core autism traits. About 19 percent of physicians surveyed in 2009 said they recommend probiotics to the autistic people they treat. An unpublished survey of 100 people found 2 adults trying stool transplants at home for autism.
These unregulated therapies can be costly and unpredictable — and they pose significant, even life-threatening, risks. Home-grown stool transplants and parasites, for example, can introduce deadly infections. This month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a safety alert about fecal transplantsafter two recipients contracted an antibiotic-resistant infection and one of them died.