El autismo es fundamentalmente un trastorno del cerebro, pero las investigaciones señalan que no menos de 9 de cada 10 individuos que lo presentan sufren también problemas gastrointestinales, como el mal de colon irritable o del «intestino permeable».
Esta segunda circunstancia se da cuando los intestinos se tornan demasiado permeables y se producen fugas de su contenido hasta el torrente sanguíneo.
Hace largo tiempo que se cuestiona si la flora intestinal o microbiota podría exhibir anomalías en los individuos con trastorno del espectro autista y, de esta manera, causar algunos de sus síntomas.
Una serie de estudios recientes viene a respaldar esta idea. Se propone que la restauración de un correcto equilibrio microbiano podría aliviar algunos de los síntomas conductuales típicos del autismo.
En la reunión anual de la Sociedad Americana de Microbiología, celebrada en Boston en mayo pasado, investigadores de la Universidad estatal de Arizona informaron de los resultados de un experimento en el que midieron las concentraciones de diversos subproductos microbianos en las heces de niños con autismo.
Cotejaron los resultados con los valores observados en niños normales. Señalan los investigadores que las concentraciones de 50 de las sustancias mencionadas diferían entre los dos grupos.
Otro estudio efectuado en 2013 y publicado en PLOS ONE daba cuenta de que, comparados con los niños sanos, los autistas presentaban alteraciones en la densidad de población de varias especies bacterianas, entre ellas, una menor densidad de bifidobacterias, un grupo que se sabe que promueve buena salud intestinal.
Todavía está por elucidar si estas diferencias microbianas son inductoras del trastorno autista o si, por el contrario, son consecuencia de él.
Un estudio publicado en Cell en diciembre de 2013 respalda la primera de las hipótesis.
Cuando investigadores del Instituto de Tecnología de California (Caltech) indujeron síntomas pseudoautistas en ratones mediante la infección de sus respectivas madres con una molécula similar a un virus durante la preñez, encontraron que los roedores recién nacidos presentaban diferencias en su flora intestinal con respecto a la de los ejemplares sanos.
A partir del tratamiento de los primeros con una bacteria saludable (Bacteroides fragilis), los investigadores pudieron atenuar algunos síntomas de carácter conductual. Los ratones tratados exhibían un comportamiento menos ansioso y estereotipado. También se volvieron más comunicativos.
Los investigadores ignoran todavía la forma exacta en que las bacterias intestinales podrían influir en la conducta.
Una hipótesis radica en que, si el intestino es permeable, podría permitir el paso al torrente circulatorio de sustancias lesivas para el cerebro.
En el estudio con ratones, el probiótico podría haber contribuido a reformar el ecosistema microbiano y reforzar los intestinos, impidiendo así la fuga de tales sustancias, explica Elaine Y. Hsiao, coautora del estudio y microbióloga en Caltech.
¿Llegará un día en que el autismo pueda tratarse mediante fármacos diseñados para restablecer un equilibrio bacteriano saludable? Pudiera ser.
No obstante, este trastorno es el resultado de una compleja interacción de factores genéticos y ambientales, afirma Manya Angley, investigadora del autismo en la Universidad de Australia del Sur, por lo que la solución seguramente no resulte tan sencilla.
El biólogo Sarkis K. Mazmanina, de Caltech y coautor del estudio con ratones, se muestra de acuerdo. «Serán necesarios muchos más años de trabajo antes de poder afirmar que las bacterias intestinales afectan al autismo y demostrar que los probióticos constituyen un tratamiento viable.»
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