Can gut bacteria affect metabolism and brain function in patients with autism or other neurological?

Updated: Feb 28, 2020

I remembered when I first read this paper published in the year 2000 and it was at first difficult to understand.  At this time the incidence of autism was 10 per 10,000 children, now is almost 2 in 100 children. I am referring to a paper written in the Journal of Child Neurology with the title:  Short-Term Benefit From Oral Vancomycin (antibiotic) Treatment of Regressive-Onset Autism.  Now, after my son amazing improvements from his diagnosis of severe autism, it is clear in my mind the impact that the gut could have in the brain of people with autism or any other neurologic disease that may affect mood, attention, obsessive-compulsive disorder, etc.



In this study, the physicians used Vancomycin, an antibiotic with minimal absorption, to see if it has any effects in lowering symptoms of autism.  After using the antibiotic, eight of ten children improved in behavior and communication.  There were no changes in nutrition, administration of probiotics (good bacteria) during the treatment or other nutrients that can enhance gut health.  The improvements were clear by several measures, but these gains did not last.  My experience tells me that when you faced a challenging disease like autism, improvements with a medication-only approach will not be sustainable without improving nutrition, adding beneficial nutrients for the gut or brain and lifestyle changes.


One of the best researchers regarding autism and gut dysfunction is the physician Derrick Macfabe.  He demonstrated that when you inject a toxin (propionic acid) secreted from a gut bacteria (clostridia) into the brain of a rat, the end product will be inflammation of the brain cells, oxidative stress, and autistic behaviors.  It has been demonstrated that clostridia (gut bacteria) can secrete propionic acid which is toxic to the mitochondria and brain function.  There have been studies that suggest that up to 80% of children with autism have an abnormal mitochondrial function.  In other words, an imbalance in my gut can negatively impact my brain function by affecting mitochondria function.  Mitochondria are the energy factory of our cells, especially brain cells.  If mitochondria are not working well, the brain will not have the necessary energy to work efficiently.


Now, let's talk about improvements by eating healthy food.  Broccoli is an example of an excellent example of nutritional food for autism.  It contains multiple beneficial nutrients, but one of them is called sulforaphane which it may cause a positive impact in kids on the spectrum. Sulforaphane is a potent modulator of the transcription factor Nrf2 which increases the production of antioxidants inside your cells, improve detoxification in your body, and is vital for healthy mitochondria function.  In a placebo-controlled trial published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, sulforaphane derived from broccoli was administered to twenty-nine patients with autism or placebo.  After eighteen weeks, the patients with autism receiving sulforaphane from broccoli showed substantial improvements in behavior when compared to placebo.  Also, the patients receiving sulforaphane from broccoli had improvement in social interactions, abnormal behavior, and verbal communication.  Broccoli comes from a family called cruciferous vegetables that includes kale, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and they are a powerhouse against chronic disease.  The sad thing or maybe is the most important message from the study is that after discontinuation of the treatment of sulforaphane, all the improvements went away in the patients with autism.  It means nutrition may be the most crucial factor that you need to address for the wellbeing of patients with autism.


In science, we are looking for a medication that will cure autism but maybe it is not the correct approach.  Autism is a multi-factorial disease, there are different components in the body that are out of balance and a single drug is not going to do it.  Maybe the healing of our children with autism is in our kitchen.  Which foods are harmful to the brain and mitochondria?  Which foods improve mitochondria and the brain?  These are the questions that we need to be asking.


Behavior, occupational, and physical therapy are essential for autism.  At the same time, having adequate nutrition will improve the results of therapy.  Not having adequate nutrition is like trying to have a conversation when you only have two bars on your cell phone.   You can repeat a lot of instructions, but the information is not going to stay because the signal is poor or low.  When you improve the whole person's health through nutrition, you are improving your brain's bar signal.  It becomes more receptive to information.


I agree with Martha Herbert, which is a pediatric neurologist at Harvard Medical School.  She expressed brilliantly in her research paper that autism should not be view as a brain-only disorder, but a whole-body disease that affects the brain.

There is hope for patients with autism and other neurological diseases.


David Rivas, RPh, CCN



References: Frye, R. E., Rose, S., Slattery, J., & MacFabe, D. F. (2015). Gastrointestinal dysfunction in autism spectrum disorder: the role of the mitochondria and the enteric microbiome. Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease, 26(1), 27458. Herbert, M. R. (2005). Autism: a brain disorder or a disorder that affects the brain. Clinical Neuropsychiatry, 2(6), 354-379. MacFabe, D. F., Rodríguez-Capote, K., Hoffman, J. E., Franklin, A. E., Mohammad-Asef, Y., Taylor, A. R., ...  Ossenkopp, K. P. (2008). A novel rodent model of autism: intraventricular infusions of propionic acid increase locomotor activity and induce neuroinflammation and oxidative stress in discrete regions of adult rat brain. Am J Biochem Biotechnol, 4(2), 146-66. Sandler, R. H., Finegold, S. M., Bolte, E. R., Buchanan, C. P., Maxwell, A. P., Väisänen, M. L., ... & Wexler, H. M. (2000). Short-term benefit from oral vancomycin treatment of regressive-onset autism. Journal of child neurology, 15(7), 429-435. Singh, K., Connors, S. L., Macklin, E. A., Smith, K. D., Fahey, J. W., Talalay, P., & Zimmerman, A. W. (2014). Sulforaphane treatment of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(43), 15550-15555. Sun, Y., Yang, T., Mao, L., & Zhang, F. (2017). Sulforaphane protects against brain diseases: roles of cytoprotective enzymes. Austin Journal of Cerebrovascular Disease & Stroke, 4(1).

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