Probiotics and autism
September 6, 2007 7:07 AM   Subscribe

Some tablets containing probiotic bacteria claim to help with autistic disorders. How? Is it bunkum or could it actually help?
posted by deeper red to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, it is bunk. No one knows what causes autism or whether it can be cured or how.

But there are a lot of desperate parents out there with autistic children who are willing to waste their money on stuff like this, just in case, and there are always snake-oil salesmen willing to take their money.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 7:11 AM on September 6, 2007

It sounds like it's too early to tell.
posted by majick at 7:12 AM on September 6, 2007

Even if that particular bacterium is implicated in causing autism, that doesn't mean that "probiotics" can treat it. Autism is a malformation of the brain, and once the brain structure stabilizes (about 6 months after birth) it's permanent.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 7:19 AM on September 6, 2007

More on the story Majick quoted here.

Also see these stories from parents of autistic children who have taken probiotic tablets. However, this link is from the site of a company selling tablets, although the stories are apparently reproduced from an independent newsletter.
posted by deeper red at 7:26 AM on September 6, 2007

posted by OmieWise at 7:37 AM on September 6, 2007

Where the 'evidence' comes from is that there are certain foods (wheat, milk, ec.) that are supposedly able to make the autism better or worse due to sensitivities that we don't normally notice in kids brains, but in an autistic brain the sensitivities are magnified. Probiotics can supposedly help with this by helping to process the stuff that the kid's sensitive to.

While there is a lot of anecdotal evidence for this -- TONS of stories from parents who've tried it and swear that their kid is better -- the scientific evidence points in the completey opposite direction.

PT Barnum's quote applies here.
posted by SpecialK at 8:06 AM on September 6, 2007

P.S. - Sorry, I'm too lazy to look up sources.
posted by SpecialK at 8:07 AM on September 6, 2007

Deeper Red, you do understand that anecdotal evidence is completely useless for evaluating this, don't you? Among other problems, it's very prone to confirmation bias.

There's a reason why double-blind testing was developed.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 10:59 AM on September 6, 2007

but rationalism can be a disease

No it can't, but with that view you are unlikely to find any evidence that convinces you that probiotics are not helpful for autism, since that evidence is likely to be decidedly rational.

So why did you ask this question?
posted by OmieWise at 11:54 AM on September 6, 2007

Deeper Red, it seems as if your original question wasn't sincere. You asked if it was bunkum. What you seem to have wanted was for people to offer you reinforcement in your hope that it wasn't bunkum.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 12:18 PM on September 6, 2007

This is connected to the Opiod theory of Autismfrom around 1975, which claims that the "leaky gut" of autistic kids allows stuff to pass through into the blood and brain that has a narcotic effect. Testing of urine of autistic kids apparently shows the presence of peptides and other stuff that should normally be broken down by the digestive system. I just bought the book "Enzymes and Autism." It is not a great book, but is not entirely full of crap either. They/she/he/it recommend trying a specific brand of enzymes, "Zyme Prime" and "Peptizyde" from Houston Nutraceuticals. I only know about it because a friend hwo normally mocks this stuff had a good experience with her kid, who is not autistic but seems to be borderline Asperger's.

The problem is that the scientic studies are hard to follow, and the new age stuff is filled with anecdotes and dumb truisms (it's all caused by yeast! it's all caused by allergies!). Mangosteen and the included Xanthones also get touted as a silver bullet.

More here:

A lot of their arguments make sense--serotonin is produced in the gut. Oh, and don't forget to read about Omega-3 oils and their effects on serotonin and behavior (sfgate article).

There's a lot of crappy advice out there, and a lot of desperate people, but that doesn't mean that there isn't something worth looking at. It is unfortunate that nobody seems to be taking the work done by actual scientists in this area and making it more accessible.

disclaimer: I have no connection to any companies or products I've mentioned.
posted by craniac at 12:21 PM on September 6, 2007

Rationalism may not be a disease, but it may demand of its adherents a kind of leap of faith we ordinarily associate with religion, simply because any decision to accept rational arguments as valid cannot be made on rational grounds, since that would be arguing in a circle, and arguing in a circle is forbidden by rationalism.

I think there is at least a possibility intestinal flora might be involved in autism. Here is the abstract of a 2002 article in Clinical Infectious Diseases, published by the University of Chicago Press:

Some cases of late-onset (regressive) autism may involve abnormal flora because oral vancomycin, which is poorly absorbed, may lead to significant improvement in these children. Fecal flora of children with regressive autism was compared with that of control children, and clostridial counts were higher. The number of clostridial species found in the stools of children with autism was greater than in the stools of control children. Children with autism had 9 species of Clostridium not found in controls, whereas controls yielded only 3 species not found in children with autism. In all, there were 25 different clostridial species found. In gastric and duodenal specimens, the most striking finding was total absence of non-spore-forming anaerobes and microaerophilic bacteria from control children and significant numbers of such bacteria from children with autism. These studies demonstrate significant alterations in the upper and lower intestinal flora of children with late-onset autism and may provide insights into the nature of this disorder.

Suggestions that autoimmunity may be an important causative factor in some forms of autism, whether provoked by viruses, bacteria, or-- very controversially-- vaccines have been around for years, and such autoimmunity seems to me to offer a plausible mechanism by which intestinal bacteria could contribute to the development of autism.
posted by jamjam at 12:50 PM on September 6, 2007

Anecdotal evidence, and a SMALL amount of research seems to point to the fact that dietary chances can help, mostly in the removal of Gluten and Casein from diets.

Given the fact that stomach and digestive problems are an extremely common co-morbidity to all forms of Autism probiotics Might have some affect on some of the outlying symptoms of autism. All of the research I have seen about cutting Gluten and Casein (wheat & milk) out of the diet seem to effect the co-morbidity, not the underlying brain structure problems.

I am on the autism spectrum myself (Asperger's, clinically diagnosed). And my son (although too young for formal diagnosis) seems to be along the same spectrum as well. I've noticed positive effects on my overall well-being due to cutting out gluten and casein of my diet. But I would associate that with the treating of the co-morbidity, not with treating my underlying mental disorder. One could assume that a probiotics might help in the same manner.

So to answer your question strictly, I would say that it is possible for probiotics to "help with autistic disorders" but by treating a co-morbidity, not necessarily (or provably) causing effect to the underlying disorder.
posted by sethwoodworth at 12:57 PM on September 6, 2007

deeper red, I'll have to side with Den Beste. Rationalists are perfectly willing to bend - they just need to know which direction. You can find a thousand equally unvalidated theories on how to treat autism. Why? Because there is a huge amount of self-serving junk science out there. Even among so-called maintstream science there is a lot of junk. I'm willing to believe one out of the thousand of these theories could be correct. But I'm also willing to bet any given theory is bunk. That's because it has the one in a thousand chance of being the correct one.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 12:59 PM on September 6, 2007

deeper red, it while it doesn't appear that this has been subjected to a sufficiently rigorous clinical study to draw a solid conclusion, it does not appear that anything that went wrong with that study actually suggests that the treatment did not have a beneficial effect. Because of the flaws in the design and execution of the trial, it is inconclusive either way.

While I'd reiterate the caution that the whole territory of nutritional therapy indeed attracts a lot of bad science, generally bad reasoning, and hucksterism, probiotics have a solid position in sound nutritional science. If you have the time and resources there is no reason not to investigate the use of available commercial products on your own.
posted by nanojath at 1:27 PM on September 6, 2007

[a few comments removed, answers should probably have something to do with probiotics or autism, not nietszche]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 2:11 PM on September 6, 2007

Deeper Red, it seems as if your original question wasn't sincere. You asked if it was bunkum. What you seem to have wanted was for people to offer you reinforcement in your hope that it wasn't bunkum.

No. I find this interesting but I have no belief either way. I have no personal connection with autism.

What my question was asking for was evidence and explanation either way. What I didn't want, but what seems to constitute a lot of Metafilter replies, is firmly held opinion.

Other answers to this question offer evidence of some kind, even if it's not good quality. You waded in immediately with your arrogant opinion, which you believe to be fact, but which without evidence is worthless (unless you're a doctor, or nutritionist, or some other specialist in this field, which you should declare in your reply).

Note that Wikipedia is not a good source of first-hand evidence. It's interpretation of the facts by anonymous contributors which, in my eyes, makes it worthless. In this way it's worse than journalism as "proof" of something.

It worries me the quantity of people who provide Wikipedia links as if that's the end of the matter. At best, it's just the start of research. By its very nature, Wikipedia articles can only be taken with a pinch of salt, as grand as its ambition might be.
posted by deeper red at 1:34 AM on September 7, 2007

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