Adults with autism who were intentionally infected with a parasitic
intestinal worm experienced an improvement in their behaviour, 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 Programme at Montefiore Medical Centre 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 at the annual meeting of the American College of
Neuropsychopharmacology in Hollywood, Florida.
Hyperactive immune system
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
Researchers believe the presence of the worms can prompt the body to better
regulate its immune response, which reduces the person's inflammation levels,
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 US Centres 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 important lessons.
"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 retreated.
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 change.
Hollander reported that the main side effect of whipworm therapy, diarrhoea,
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 tub.
Researchers found that the kids had improved social behaviours 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
Larger follow-ups are necessary before such treatments can gain acceptance,
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
"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 journal.
For more information on whipworms, visit the US
Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
(Picture: Autism from Shutterstock)