The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 11% of children 4-17 years of age (6.4 million) have been diagnosed with ADHD as of 2011 with rates of ADHD diagnosis increasing an average of 5% per year between 2003 and 2011. The condition has no racial or socioeconomic bias as it is reported in all ethnic groups. The statistics for other autism spectrum disorders including Asperger syndrome (AS) are just as grim. A new study brings hope for parents with newborns. Probiotics given early in life may be the answer to avoiding neuropsychiatric disorders like ADHD and AS later in their childhood.
The one thing that autism and ADHD have in common is a lack of etiology. In other words, doctors don’t really know how or why some children develop these conditions. It is a question that has plagued modern science for decades.
Another common theme between the two is bowel issues. Many ADHD patients have digestive and intestinal problems and almost all individuals with autism suffer from them. This may indicate that gut bacteria, a normal part of the human intestine, play a role in both disorders. There are a number of suggestions about what happens to these children to cause digestive problems, but at the top of the list is an alteration in normal gut bacteria.
One prevalent theory is that lower levels of specific bacteria including some species of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria exist in children with autism or ADHD. This decrease in good bacteria may lead to an increase in “bad” or potentially pathogenic bacteria like some species of the toxin-producing Clostridium, which would lead to chronic diarrhea associated with the disorders. Studies have shown that children with neurodevelopment issues often have increased gut permeability, as well, which eventually compromises the intestinal lining. To learn more about why the gut lining is so important please read our blog discussing the gut lining here.
Understanding the link between gut flora and brain disorders may be the key to unlocking this puzzle and stopping the escalation of neurodevelopment conditions. A 2015 study published in Pediatric Research offers some insight.
Researchers with the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Turku in Finland recently completed a randomized clinical trial involving 75 infants who received a Lactobacillus based probiotic or a placebo during the first six months of their lives. The goal was to track how many of these children developed a neuropsychiatric disorder, as they grew older.
The study group measured their progress over the next 13 years. The results were startling.
Of the 75 infants studied:
During the study, the researchers assessed the gut microbiota at growth milestones such as 3 weeks, three, six, 12, 18, and 24 months and again at 13 years. Interestingly, even though they were supplementing with a Lactobacillus based probiotic, the end results found that the most notable change was in the number of Bifidobacteria present in the infant guts. They noted that the average numbers of Bifidobacterium species in the feces during the first six months of life was lower in the affected children.
We already know that certain species of gut bacteria are critical for babies. Infants born vaginally, for example, have a higher concentration of Bifidobacterium, especially when breastfed, as compared to infants born via Caesarian section and/or infants fed formula. This particular bacterium, Bifidobacterium longum subspecies infantis, aids in the digestion of breast milk by breaking down human milk oligosaccharides to use as energy, so the strain offers unique health benefits for infants. In fact, the correlation between a mother’s breast milk and the growth of beneficial bacteria B. infantis in the infant gut is so strong that researchers believe the two co-evolved together. In other words, the mother’s breast milk leads to the growth of B. infantis in her breastfeeding infant’s gut.
Evaluations of these children allowed the research scientists to draw some conclusions based on their data, in their own words, “probiotic supplementation early in life may reduce the risk of neuropsychiatric disorder development later in childhood possible by mechanisms not limited to gut microbiota composition.”
While this one study certainly does not prove a connection exists between gut health and developmental disorders, it highlights the importance of gut bacteria and brain development and function, especially at a young age. More research is necessary, though, to expand on this study.