Researchers say they are cautiously optimistic about a small study that showed that fecal transplants improved both gastrointestinal and behavioral symptoms in children with autism disorders.

Over several weeks, children experienced an improvement of about 80 percent in gastrointestinal symptoms and an improvement of about 25 percent in behavioral symptoms, said Ann Gregory, one of the study’s authors and a microbiology graduate student at Ohio State University. Improvements remained even after treatment was stopped.

Children with autism often have severe gastrointestinal problems, and other research has shown that bacteria in the guts of children could play a role in their behavioral health.

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The 18 children, who had moderate to severe gastrointestinal problems, were treated with antibiotics to clear out much of the flora in their gastrointestinal tracts. Then they were given liquids with large amounts of gut microbiota, containing 99 percent bacteria, taken from fecal donors. The transplants were performed either rectally or orally.

Children drank smoothies with smaller amounts of the microbiota in the following seven to eight weeks.

Parents and doctors of the children, ages 7 to 16, were surveyed to assess changes, and stool samples were analyzed.

For eight weeks after treatment, researchers saw a decrease in symptoms such as abdominal pain, indigestion, diarrhea and constipation in all but two of the patients. And, on average, the developmental age of the children increased by 1.4 years.

Further, the bacteria in the guts of the children shifted toward that seen in the guts of children without autism disorders.

Researchers were surprised at the extent of the improvements, Gregory said, and a second phase of the study is planned.

“More research is needed before this can be used for treatment,” she said, cautioning parents against trying it on their own. “Microbiota should be very carefully screened, and the treatment should be done under medical supervision.”

The study, which is to be published in the journal Microbiome, was conducted while Gregory and her adviser and co-author, Matthew Sullivan, were at the University of Arizona. Both are now at Ohio State, where Sullivan is an associate professor of microbiology.

Gregory said the study was taken on after fecal transplants proved successful in people with other gastrointestinal issues.

Limits of the study include the small number of participants, that parents and children knew that they were being treated and that there was heavy reliance on parents’ observations.

“We have to be mindful of the placebo effect, and we have to take it with a grain of salt,” Sullivan said in a statement. “But it does give us hope.”

Fecal transplants have successfully treated Clostridium difficile, known as C. diff, an internal bacterial infection that can cause diarrhea, fever and other symptoms and is found in about 500,000 Americans each year.

At Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center, researchers started performing such procedures in 2013 and said that such bacteria transplants have a 95 percent success rate in treating C. diff, which has become a serious problem in hospitals and nursing homes.

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