While researchers, educators, and advocates have made significant inroads to helping to treat autism in the sixty years since the disorder was first identified, there still remains two crucial questions about a disorder that effects nearly seventy million people worldwide: what is its cause and how can we cure it?

A recent article published by researchers at the California Institute of Technology has pointed to an unlikely cause and possible cure for the millions of people diagnosed with autism: the stomach. More particularly, scientists have found that there is a vast difference between the trillions of stomach bacteria in the intestines of children without autism versus those who have been diagnosed with the disorder.

For many parents, this might not come as a surprise as nearly ninety percent of children with autism frequently complain of stomach irritability with them being 3.5 times more likely to suffer from chronic diarrhea and constipation. But the presence of distinct bacteria in children with autism is not just a symptom of the disorder; it might also be its cause, and potential cure.

In most circles, behavioral therapy is seen as the most effective treatment for helping children with autism to overcome the impaired communication skills, lack of social engagement, and repetitive behavior that are the three most common components of autism. However, according to the researchers at Cal Tech, a potential treatment might be cultivated in a probiotic, which are helpful bacteria found in such products as yogurt.

In fact, the researchers have already reported that a new probiotic therapy tested in mice helped to reduce autistic behavior in mice, with a proper clinical trial currently being planned. Accordingly, they found that by blocking the gastrointestinal issues, it would actually become easier to treat the behavioral issues associated with the disorder.

So how did researchers pinpoint the stomach as a potential center for autism? Following up on the common complaints of stomach irritability amongst children with autism, they studied stool samples from both autistic and non-autistic individuals and discovered that the former’s samples contained far less varieties of gut bacteria, which would make children with autism far more at risk of disease-causing bacteria. In addition, there were significant differences in the types and volume of gut bacteria.

But does this mean that the stomach holds the key to understanding the cause and cure for autism? In another study, researchers followed up on the fact that mothers that contract the flu during pregnancy double their risk of giving birth to a baby with autism by infecting mice with a flu-like virus. The findings showed that those mice with the flu gave birth to babies exhibiting symptoms of autism since the different gut bacteria then leaked into the bloodstream and likely traveled up to the brain. Researchers then attempted to counteract the symptoms by injecting a probiotic agent and discovered that the symptoms decreased significantly.

While this is still a very new and developing area of understanding the possible cause and cure of autism, it could at the very least lead to a new form of probiotic treatment that could ultimately supplement behavioral therapy and help autistic individuals better manage their symptoms. Either way, by pinpointing stomach bacteria as an essential component in both the cause and treatment of autism, researchers have made a monumental leap that we could be seeing the benefits from sooner rather than later.