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Probiotics and autism

by on 2016/06/23

Parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are frequently exposed to ‘potential cures’ for their child’s disorder in the media. In the last week, several media outlets have focused on probiotics suggesting it can ‘reverse’  or ‘cure’ autism symptoms. Autism is a life-long developmental disability, characterised by persistent difficulties with social communication and social interaction alongside restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviours, activities or interests evident from early childhood. The symptoms significantly limit and impair everyday functioning, so it is no wonder that parents will be alerted to potential evidence that suggests a possible cure or reversal of symptoms.  What evidence does this recent study provide though, and how did the media handle coverage of the study findings?

What did the study involve?

The research study was conducted by a group of researchers based at Baylor College of Medicine and it was published in the journal Cell.  The study involved animals, specifically mice. The authors found that by providing a diet rich in Lactobacillus reuteri, which is a bacteria found in human breast milk and probiotic yogurts, mice that had previously shown anti-social behaviors would begin to interact with each other. The researchers also found that this bacteria also increased oxytocin levels. Several studies have suggested that oxytocin plays an important role in influencing social behavior. This isn’t the first study that has suggested a link between probiotics and autism. The researchers have stated though that theirs is “one of the first to combine a species-level analysis of the composition of the gut microbiome not only with behavioral assessment but also with functional analysis of plasticity in the brain”.

How did the media handle reporting of the study?

The main issue about the media handling of this study concerns the use of sensationalist headlines. Referring to potential cures or reversal of symptoms of autism is over-egging the pudding when we look at the specific contribution of this study. This was a study conducted with mice and by itself can only report on social behaviours that are similar or relate to autism. As described above, autism is a complex disorder characterised by persistent difficulties with social communication and social interaction alongside restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviours, activities. The authors did not assess this complex set of difficulties. The study was obviously not carried out with children or adults with a diagnosis of autism. The headlines were therefore overzealous with the implications they put out.

The bottom line

Other groups have also expressed disquiet about media reports of autism ‘cures’ in relation to this study. They also note that this study may provide useful information about the development of treatments for autism. It is important that message doesn’t get lost by an overzealous account of the research in the media.

Buffington S.A. et al. (2016). Microbial reconstitution reverses maternal diet-induced social and synaptic deficits in offspring.. Cell. DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2016.06.001


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