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Autism ‘could one day be treated with a probiotic pill’: Mice fed the faeces of autistic children developed symptoms of the brain disorder as scientists say gut bacteria could be to blame

  • Researchers from California Institute of Technology did the research on mice
  • They found repetitiveness and anti-social behaviour developed in the animals
  • But the faeces transplants had no effect if they came from a child without autism
  • Mice’s autistic symptoms could be reduced by feeding them certain chemicals 

Mice fed faeces from human children with autism developed signs of having the disorder, scientists claim. 

Rodents given the faecal transplants were less likely to socialise and more likely to develop repetitive behaviour.

Researchers were adamant their research didn’t prove bacteria in the gut caused autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

A team of researchers at the California Institute of Technology said their research adds weight to the growing idea that gut bacteria may have a bearing on autism (stock image of bacteria)

However, they believe the findings could lead to new treatments for the disorder, such as probiotic drugs. 

The study adds further weight to existing suggestions that gut bacteria may play a role in causing the spectrum disorder.

‘This opens the possibility that ASD… may be treated by therapies that target the gut rather than the brain,’ said lead researcher, Dr Sarkis Mazmanian.

Dr Mazmanian, from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), suggested it could even help other ‘classical neurologic conditions’.

The researchers implanted the stool of children with autism into the stomachs of mice in a laboratory to investigate the gut bacteria theory.


Research is ongoing into a possible link between autism and the types of bacteria which live in someone’s gut.

Shandong University in China this month published a study showing children with autism have a unique mixture of organisms living in their digestive system.

The scientists found abnormalities may come from the children’s mothers, whose gut bacteria may have an influence on the development of their baby’s brain.

And they suggested certain bacteria could block chemical messages in the brain, changing how it works. 

The gut bacteria may be useful as a target for treatments for autism, with scientists at Arizona State University finding symptoms can be reduced by implanting healthier organisms.

In a study in the US state, 18 children have already had the severity of their symptoms slashed by 45 per cent after faecal transplants from children without the spectrum disorder.

Many of the children in the study had their autism reclassified from severe at to ‘mild to moderate’ or even dropped off the spectrum altogether. 

While the gut bacteria – known as the microbiome – triggered autistic symptoms if it came from an autistic child, it had no effect when it came from a healthy child.

‘There are many factors that make autism more complicated in humans than in mice,’ Dr Mazmanian said.

‘In mice, we can model the symptoms of the disorder but not reproduce it.

‘However, this research provides clues into the role that the gut microbiota plays in neural changes that are associated with ASD.

‘It suggests that ASD symptoms may one day be remedied with bacterial metabolites or a probiotic drug.’

As many as one in 60 children are thought to have ASD, which can affect their ability to communicate, understand things and control their emotions.

It is considered a disability, although how severe it is can vary massively between people and many sufferers are able to lead normal lives.

The cause of the mental disorder is not well understood and, as such, there is no way to cure people of it.  

Mice which had symptoms induced were observed to be sniffing, pushing and wrestling with the other mice less often than normal, The Guardian reported.

They also squeaked less and were more likely to obsessively bury marbles in their cages, while the other mice would only bury a couple before giving up.

Obsessive, repetitive behaviour is a well-known sign of autism in people, as is a reduced ability or willingness to talk to and interact with others.

The scientists found they were able to reduce the mice’s autism symptoms by feeding them certain chemicals (taurine and 5-aminovaleric acid).

Although they didn’t want to give people ‘false hope’, they told The Guardian, the researchers suggested testing chemicals like this could one day be scaled up to humans.

The team’s research was published in the journal Cell.  


Faecal microbiota transplantation (FMT) is the transfer of stool from a healthy donor into the gastrointestinal tract of a patient.


It is most commonly used to treat recurring C. difficile infection – spread by bacterial spores found within faeces. It is 90 per cent effective.

It can also be used to treat gastrointestinal conditions such as colitis, irritable bowel syndrome and constipation – but success rates are much lower. 

Recent studies have delved into the benefits of treating conditions linked to a poor balance of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria in the gut, such as autism. 

Faecal microbiota transplantation (FMT) is the transfer of stool from a healthy donor into the gastrointestinal tract of a patient

Faecal microbiota transplantation (FMT) is the transfer of stool from a healthy donor into the gastrointestinal tract of a patient

FMT can replenish bacterial balance as it acts like a probiotic, with samples of faeces often containing up to 1,000 different species of bacteria.  


The transplant is done via tubes – inserted into the nostril, down the throat and into the stomach – or directly into the colon.

However, the faecal sample can also be transplanted through enemas or pills containing freeze-dried material.


There have been reports of patients showing unexpected weight gain after treatment, bouts of vomiting and even abdominal pain.

However, the long-term safety and effectiveness of FMT is relatively unknown, and researchers have called for more studies to determine the risks. 


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