Worms and Hot Baths Tested as Autism Treatments

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Although the remedies may sound unconventional, doctors are currently testing whether infecting people with worms or giving them hot baths could reduce some symptoms of autism.

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In small, early clinical trials, the unusual treatments — which involve using parasitic worm eggs to trigger anti-inflammatory signals in the gut, or raising the body temperature to mimic the effects of an infection — lessened the repetitive behaviors and other symptoms of the disorders; even so, scientists say the effects must be replicated before the treatments can be considered safe and effective.

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"All three studies are interesting and merit further investigation," said Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Steven & Alexandra Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York in New Hyde Park, who was not involved in the studies. "To what extent they can lead to clinical treatment is unclear," Adesman said. (5 Wacky Things That Are Good for Your Health)

In addition, parents should note that trying such treatments at home, without the guidance of a medical specialist, could be dangerous.

Autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, is a group of developmental brain disorders associated with impairments in social skills, communication problems and repetitive behaviors. The causes of the disorder are not fully understood, but are thought to be complex and varied, and current treatments address only the symptoms.

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One theory of what causes autism holds that during pregnancy, activation of the mother's immune system results in inflammation in the baby, which leads to developmental and behavioral abnormalities. Modern human society, some say, has become hyper-sanitized, ridding humans of exposure to common microbes, and so when exposed to even benign "bugs" their immune systems go on the offense. One of the results is inflammation. Some scientists believe germ-free living may explain the higher incidence of inflammatory disorders, such as asthma and allergies, in developed countries.

Previous research has investigated treatment using parasitic worm eggs, known as Trichura suis ova (TSO), to treat autoimmune diseases, such as Crohn's disease, finding the treatment to be effective in small studies. Anecdotal reports suggest that TSO infection may reduce certain symptoms of autism by reducing underlying inflammation. TSO is a common pig parasite, but is generally considered harmless in humans.

Dr. Eric Hollander, a clinical psychiatrist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center, decided to test the treatment in people with autism. In the trial, five high-functioning young adults with the condition were randomly assigned to drink a dose of worm eggs mixed in saltwater, while another five high-functioning participants with autism were given a placebo for three months. Then, after a one-month period of no treatment, each group received the opposite drink for three months.

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