Action Potential - Jan 24, 2017steemCreated with Sketch.

in science •  2 years ago

Poopy science

One thing I’ve learned from my short tenure in science is that often, when you get a result that is really surprising and difficult to explain, it ends up being wrong or explained by something really mundane and boring. Therefore, my BS sensors have been tingling around a new paper that’s been getting a lot of press this week titled, “Autism Symptoms Improve After Fecal Transplant: Small Study.”

I love this title, because it suggests to me that the authors knew that it was going to blow up in press and were trying to apologize for it right away. “See scientists,” it seems to say, “we recognize that this is a small study and that the results are likely not replicable. It’s not our fault if it becomes super famous.”

I haven’t read this study (it’s not quite published yet), so my criticism is super unfair. But seriously…

The study found that doing fecal transplants in children with autism (and gastrointestinal disease) improved behavioral symptoms associated with autism (and gastrointestinal disease).

Here are some thoughts for ya’ll to mull over:

Are the parents who are reporting the behavioral symptoms immune to placebo effects? (No, it was not a blind study, so the children and their parents knew they were being treated).

Is it not possible that some of those behavioral problems, such as irritability and communication problems, were partially caused by the gastrointestinal distress? Or is that just me?

Wouldn’t you reduce your behavioral problems if someone just made you drink someone else’s poo?

Living in the Future

Hold on to your butts, everyone…I’m about to use the words, “targeted, nanonparticles, biodegradeable, brain, and FDA-approved” all in the same paragraph. Science orgasm (which is to say, an orgasm).

Some geniuses built a brilliant new drug delivery system, and published in the hilariously named and prestigious “Nano Letters.” It works like this: you put a drug in a biodegradable, nanoparticle. Some news sources have been describing these nanoparticles as “tiny,” but I know you all are smarter with larger imaginations, so I’ll emphasize that these nanoparticles are super tiny.

Then you put the nanoparticles in a body (a rat body, in this case). Then you use targeted ultrasound on an area that you want to treat, which is completely non-invasive. The ultrasound makes a liquid in the nanoparticles transform to gas and release the drug. That’s awesome because right now if you give someone a drug it usually goes everywhere, which is less good than if it only goes to place you want it!

BONUS: All the individual pieces of this are already FDA-approved, which means we might get to see it in clinical practice soon.

I’m personally excited about this as a new experimental paradigm to manipulate specific brain areas.

doi: 10.1021/acs.nanolett.6b03517

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Fecal transplantation isn't drinking someone elses poo, its actually swallowing poop capsules (but not the poop itself persay, just the bacterial component of it). Its actually a wildly effective treatment for C. difficile infection. Microbiome contributions to a variety of other diseases is an emerging field of study, and we do know that there is a metabolic component to other neurological diseases (like parkinsons), it is not outside the realm of possibility that microbiome composition could contribute to the onset of autism. Though I remain skeptical. I go where the data goes though, so all it takes to get me on board is well designed experiments testing what they are designed to test, and convincing results.

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And I would add: replicable experiments (but this was maybe understood on your 'well designed').

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Exactly! If it's well designed and testing what it is intended then it should also be easily repeated.

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I totally agree with you. I'm mostly trying to criticize the disproportional amount of press for a very preliminary and inconclusive study. The treatment of science in the media can have very real effects on people's behavior, but also in the way that they view science. If large groups of people start practicing something that doesn't work, or worse, has negative effects, then when the science seems to change its mind later on, that breeds distrust in the scientific community. How can science lead to truth if it is contradicting itself all the time?

Also, public hype influences where funding goes. Maybe this is a promising route, and definitely should be studied further, but maybe some other more promising research is not being funded because of it.

You seem knowledgeable about the fecal microbiota transplantation, but for other readers for a short an informative review article of fecal transplantation and its history and promise, take a look at "An overview of fecal microbiota transplantation: techniques, indications, and outcomes." The focus is on clinical practice, but it gives you a good idea of what is involved and what it has been used for. It's a few years old now, so the field has evolved a bit.