THURSDAY, Dec. 12, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- Adults with autism
who were intentionally infected with a parasitic intestinal worm
experienced an improvement in their behavior, researchers say.
After swallowing whipworm eggs for 12 weeks, people with autism
became more adaptable and less likely to engage in repetitive
actions, said study lead author Dr. Eric Hollander, director of the
Autism and Obsessive Compulsive Spectrum Program at Montefiore
Medical Center in New York City.
"We found these individuals had less discomfort associated with a deviation in their expectations," Hollander said. "They were less likely to have a temper tantrum or act out."
The whipworm study is one of two novel projects Hollander is
scheduled to present Thursday at the annual meeting of the American
College of Neuropsychopharmacology in Hollywood, Fla.
The other therapy -- hot baths for children with autism -- also
was found to improve symptoms, Hollander said.
Inflammation caused by a hyperactive immune system, which is
suspected to contribute to autism, is the link between the two
unusual but potentially effective treatments.
Researchers believe the presence of the worms can prompt the
body to better regulate its immune response, which reduces the
person's inflammation levels, Hollander said.
Meanwhile, hot baths can fool the body into thinking it's
running a fever, prompting the release of protective
anti-inflammatory signals, he believes.
Autism is estimated to affect one in 50 school-aged children in
the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention. People with the developmental disorder have
impaired social and communication skills.
Rob Ring, chief science officer of Autism Speaks, said such
outside-the-box treatments may seem unusual but can provide
"My own general mantra is to be agnostic about where new ideas come from, but religious about data," Ring said. "It's important for the field of autism to develop new approaches."
The whipworm study involved 10 high-functioning adults with
autism who ate whipworm eggs for 12 weeks, ingesting about 2,500
eggs every two weeks. They also spent another 12 weeks on an
inactive placebo medication.
Unlike deadly whipworms in dogs, these whipworms don't harm
humans, Hollander said. "The whipworm doesn't reproduce in the gut,
and it doesn't penetrate the intestines, so it doesn't cause
illness in humans," Hollander said. The gut clears itself of the
worms every two weeks, which is why patients had to be
Use of the worms relates to the "hygiene hypothesis," which
holds that some autoimmune disorders might be caused by a lack of
microbes or parasites present in the body during earlier, less
hygienic times, Hollander said. These bugs might help regulate the
immune response in the human body.
In this case, it was found that the adults receiving the worm
treatment became less compulsive and better able to deal with
Hollander reported that the main side effect of whipworm
therapy, diarrhea, occurred about as often in those taking a
placebo, or dummy medication.
The bath study involved 15 children with autism who alternated
days soaking in a 102-degree hot tub versus a 98-degree hot
Researchers found that the kids had improved social behaviors on
days when they soaked in the 102-degree tub.
The findings verify earlier reports that about one-third of
people with autism show an improvement in symptoms when they suffer
a fever, the researchers said in background information.
"Parents have said when their child got fevers, they see a marked improvement in autism symptoms," Ring said. "This has been reported for years. This study is just one angle you can take experimentally to get at whether this is a true response."
Hollander said he plans to follow up the whipworm study with a
larger sample that eventually will contain young patients and
lower-functioning adults with autism.
Larger follow-ups are necessary before such treatments can gain
acceptance, Ring said.
There is some doubt surrounding the usefulness of the whipworm,
which has been investigated as a way of treating other diseases
related to the immune system, Ring added.
A major trial testing a whipworm treatment for Crohn's disease,
an inflammatory bowel disease, recently failed, casting a shadow
over the worm's effectiveness as an immune system modulator, he
said. The company that co-funded Hollander's research, Coronado
Biosciences, also was behind the Crohn's study.
"I think it's still a ways away before we know whether these treatments are going to be effective," Ring said. "But these findings are helping put us on a road to better understand these effects."
Data and conclusions presented at meetings are typically
considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed medical
For more information on whipworms, visit the
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and
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