Adults with autism who ingested whipworm eggs for 12 weeks became more adaptable and exhibited fewer repetitive actions, according to a new study. The same researchers also found that hot baths improved symptoms in children with autism.
The two novel projects will be presented at the annual meeting of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology.
Inflammation caused by a hyperactive immune system (which is suspected to contribute to autism) is the link between the two unusual but potentially effective therapies.
Researchers believe the presence of the worms can prompt the body to better regulate its immune response, which reduces the person’s inflammation levels, said study lead author Eric Hollander, M.D., director of the Autism and Obsessive Compulsive Spectrum Program at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City Hollander.
“We found these individuals had less discomfort associated with a deviation in their expectations,” said Hollander. “They were less likely to have a temper tantrum or act out.”
Researchers also found that hot baths can trick the body into thinking it’s running a fever, triggering the release of protective anti-inflammatory signals.
The whipworm study involved 10 high-functioning adults with autism who swallowed whipworm eggs for 12 weeks, amounting to approximately 2,500 eggs every two weeks. They also spent another 12 weeks on an inactive placebo medication.
Unlike fatal 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 rids itself of the worms every two weeks, which is why patients had to swallow them again.
The worm study is backed by the “hygiene hypothesis,” which holds that some autoimmune disorders might be caused by a lack of microbes or parasites present in the body during less hygienic times, Hollander said. These parasites might help regulate the body’s immune response.
In this case, the patients receiving the worm treatment became less compulsive and better able to handle change.
For the bath study, 15 children with autism spent alternate days soaking in a 102-degree hot tub versus a 98-degree hot tub. The findings showed that social behaviors improved on the 102-degree hot tub days.
The results validate earlier reports that about one-third of people with autism show an improvement in symptoms when they are running a fever.
“Parents have said when their child got fevers, they see a marked improvement in autism,” said Rob Ring, Ph.D., chief science officer of Autism Speaks. “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 plans to continue the whipworm study with a larger sample that eventually will contain young patients and lower-functioning adults with autism.