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Father urges research: Can antibiotics improve autism symptoms?

"Current research is demonstrating that gut bacteria play previously undiscovered roles in health and disease throughout medicine," study author John Rodakis writes.

By Brooks Hays
Father urges research: Can antibiotics improve autism symptoms?
Co-trimoxazole, a type of antibiotic. Anecdotal evidence -- and one scientific study -- has shown antibiotics to diminish autism symptoms in some children. Photo by CC/Magnus Manske

DALLAS, March 24 (UPI) -- When John Rodakis noticed his son's autism symptoms improve while taking an antibiotic for strep throat, he was intrigued. So much so that he set out to figure out why.

In a recent article for the scientific journal journal Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease, Rodakis describes his efforts in encouraging the scientific community to further explore any link between autism and antibiotics.

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"I was determined to understand what was happening in the hope of helping both my son and millions of other children with autism," Rodakis writes in the recently published article.

In speaking to other parents and scanning the scientific literature, Rodakis found that a potential connection between autism and antibiotics wasn't an entirely novel concept. Parents have reported that certain antibiotics alleviate autism symptoms, while others have suggested the drugs make conditions worse. Some -- more controversially -- have suggested that extended antibiotic regimens were to blame for their child's autism diagnosis.

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Despite the much discussed anecdotal evidence of a link, the topic had been explored in only a single 1999 study conducted at Chicago Rush Children's Hospital. The study found that 8 of 10 children showed diminished autism symptoms after taking an antibiotic called vancomycin.

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While researchers in that study suggested a link between the gut microbiome and autism, an exact mechanism couldn't be isolated.

In addition to revealing a growing body of evidence for a link between certain kinds of autism and gut bacteria, Rodakis' research also led him to Dr. Richard Frye, the head of the Autism Research Program at Arkansas Children's Hospital Research Institute.

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Rodakis and Frye have begun collaborating on a campaign to encourage further exploration of the interplay between the gut microbiome, antibiotics and autism. The two organized a conference last summer in Little Rock that brought together a number of experts in related fields and outlined a path forward.

Rodakis doesn't believe in antibiotics as a cure for autism, but as an important research tool. Nor does Rodakis purport to know why antibiotics appeared to momentarily help his son.

But he does believe the link between the gut microbiome and autism is real -- and that further exploring the link is the best way to shift the paradigm of autism science away from the idea that the disorder is strictly a genetic-driven neurological wiring problem.

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"Current research is demonstrating that gut bacteria play previously undiscovered roles in health and disease throughout medicine," Rodakis writes. "The evidence is very strong that they also play a role in autism. It's my hope that by studying these antibiotic-responding children, we can learn more about the core biology of autism."

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"I love him unconditionally, regardless of his autism or how he is doing on any given day," he continues. "But because I have seen what is possible, I will endeavor to promote research that benefits all children with autism and to remove all impediments from him becoming the fullest embodiment of who he can be, and until it is definitively proven otherwise, I will strive to foster research consistent with the evidence of the microbiome's involvement in autism."

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