A new study shows that a couple of unusually folksy medical treatments — hot baths and a meal of worm eggs — may help symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Whereas a hot bath raises body temperature to mimic the effects of infection, worm eggs in the gut stimulate the production of immunoregulatory agents, which quash inflammatory signals gone haywire in the body. Among investigatory hypotheses and conspiracy theories, the notion of a hyperactive immune system — causing rises in bodily inflammation — has gained currency among scientists explaining the disorder afflicting one in 88 American children.
In the study, Eric Hollander of Albert Einstein College of Medicine, found that a hot bath in 102 degrees Fahrenheit led to improved social scores among children who’d previously responded positively to the effects of fever. After soaking those children in hot baths, the physician researcher did something even stranger: For 12 weeks, a group of adults with ASD consumed Trichuris suis ova, the eggs of the whip worm. Proven safe for human consumption in other experiments, the worms inhibit immune system responses, lowering inflammation.
Hollander noted that previous studies of worm eggs have yielded insight into other medical conditions, particularly immune-related diseases. Among that group, 10 highly functioning people with ASD received the worm eggs supplement along with a concurrent, but randomized, 12-week study phase in which they received placebo. And it worked. Symptoms of repetitive and ritualistic behaviors improved in response to the treatment.
The worm treatment “has been shown to improve various immune inflammatory illnesses by shifting the ratio of T regulator/T helper cells and their respective cytokines,” Hollander said Wednesday in a statement. However, he emphasized that future studies should seek to replicate these findings among children with more aggravated cases of ASD.
Today, children with ASD may receive diagnoses as young as 2-years-old, with 18 percent of cases diagnosed by age 3, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). By the child’s first birthday, most parents notice a developmental problem, reporting concerns about vision and hearing most commonly to doctors, in addition to observations on social, communication, and fine motor skills. Aside from the social cost, ASD drains $4,110-$6,200 per year in medical expenditures beyond care for children without the condition.