Clinical Trial Research on Links Between Inflammation and Autism
Inflammations, such as a fever or the reddish hot area around an infection, are normal responses of the immune system. In fact, inflammation is such a common defense mechanism that some of its effects sort of slipped off the research radar.
Until recently (the last five years or less), this was the case for researching links between inflammation and autism (or more accurately, autism spectrum disorder). These days the inflammation-autism link is a busy area, including some research that may seem ‘far out’ until you look at the details. One such research track uses worms, whipworms (Trichuris suis ova) to be exact.
Using Whipworms to Research Autism
Obviously, question #1 is, “What do whipworms have to do with autism?!” Like so many things in science, the answer isn’t about surface appearances but about something the worms do in the human body. They suppress the immune system, specifically the inflammatory response.
The researchers, led by noted autism specialist Dr. Eric Hollander of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine (New York), started with the knowledge that inflammation may play an important role in brain related psychiatric problems. The influence of whipworms on inflammation, while not exactly conventional, seemed to be a promising avenue of exploration.
Question #2 immediately pops up, “Aren’t the worms bad for people?” No, actually, they’re not native to human beings. Whipworms are associated with pigs and dogs, inside humans they can’t reproduce and they cause no harm or illness in the gastrointestinal tract. Other research already shows the worms are potentially good for treating immune system related diseases such as Crohn’s disease, which led the researchers to try them with autism.
Testing the Autism – Inflammation Response
They gave ten 10 high-functioning adults with autism 2500 worm eggs (in pills) every two weeks for 12 weeks. They also gave them a placebo (randomly applied) for an alternate 12 weeks. The worms inhabit the intestines where they produce chemical triggers that play a role in regulating the immune system’s reaction to inflammation.
Researchers believe these triggers are part of what is known as the “hygiene hypothesis,” the possibility that some autoimmune disorders may be caused by a lack or imbalance of bacteria and other parasites that used to be present in humans during previous ages when life (and living) was not so sanitized.
Whether this hypothesis is correct or not, it leads researchers to look at almost anything that affects the immune system through the digestive tract – whipworms being one such case.
Results From the Autism Clinical Trial
In this experiment, the adults receiving the worm treatment were observed to be less compulsive and better able to deal with change, when compared with the behavior when they received the placebo. The researchers measured the behavior in three areas – rigidity (unwillingness to listen), flexibility (the ability to adapt to different conditions), and insistence on sameness (autistic people are usually obsessed with order, consistency and sameness in their environment).
They found improvement in all three areas and a marked decrease in protest to changes in their routine that were part of the experiment. From the researcher’s point of view, these results are intriguing – but a long way from definitive. For one thing, other researchers need to run similar experiments to replicate the results.
For another thing, much more work needs to be done to find the biochemical activity induced by the whipworms. In other words, the current research shows a correlation between the whipworms and the reduction of autistic symptoms, it doesn’t show how whipworms cause that reduction.
Dr. Hollander also reported on another line of research that has a more direct link to reduction of autistic symptoms. His team recently reported on finding from experiments involving 15 children with autism who were treated by soaking in baths alternating each day between 102 degree (F) and 98-degree temperatures.
This too sounds a little far-fetched until you realize that raising body temperature through soaking in a bath simulates a fever – an inflammatory immune response. Parents have reported for a long time that when their autistic children had a fever, for example from a cold, their autistic behavior improved.
This experiment simulates the condition with the 102 degree bath, and in fact, the researchers observed better behavior on the days when the children had the hotter (above body temperature) bath. It should be obvious that neither of these approaches is likely to be a long-term treatment for autism.
That wasn’t the point. Rather these and other experiments enable researchers to assemble more findings that are exact about the relationship between inflammation and autism. Eventually, the information gathered should lead to increasingly detailed and accurate explanations for how inflammation promotes autism – and from that, suggest how it might be treated.