These scientists think intestinal worms could help treat neuropsychiatric diseases

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Scientists should examine the potential of intestinal worms to treat neuropsychiatric diseases, according to a report published in the journal Brain Research.

Intestinal worms infect over 2 billion people across the world. The parasitic worms can cause serious health problems, but research has found that they can also beneficially influence the composition of gut microbiota and reduce inflammation.

“We became interested in intestinal worms (helminths) over a decade ago as we were trying to understand why humans in Western society tend to be so prone to digestive disorders, allergies, and autoimmune conditions,” explained William Parker, an associate professor of surgery at Duke University Medical Center and senior author of the report.

“We and others knew that our complete lack of helminths was potentially part of the problem. Then we found that some people self-treating with helminths were seeing unexpected but very positive effects on their neuropsychiatric problems (anxiety, depression, migraine headaches).”

“Although unexpected, in hindsight this made perfect sense because helminths tend to reduce inflammation, and inflammation is associated with neuropsychiatric disorders,” Parker told PsyPost. “That realization prompted us to perform additional studies, including studies in laboratory animals, to verify that helminths could indeed have a beneficial effect on inflammation-associated neurological problems.”

In a study published in the Journal of Helminthology, Parker and his colleagues interviewed 5 physicians who had monitored 700 patients who had used helminths to self-medicate. Most of the patients (57%) attempted to use helminths to treat autism.

The parasitics worms were not effective in treating the difficulties in social interactions and communication that typically occur in autism spectrum disorders. Rather, the physicians said the worms aided the treatment of inflammation-related conditions associated with autism, such as allergy and digestive problems.

“I think that we should keep in mind that the tremendous burden of disease we see today in Western society, including the high levels of neuropsychiatric problems, is something that we do NOT have to live with,” Parker told PsyPost. “If we understand the fundamental nature of the problem, we as a society can work toward an effective solution.”

Research on helminth therapy is still in its infancy — and the field faces some serious hurdles.

Even though they are organisms, helminths are currently treated as a drug in the United States health system, Parker noted in his report. Developing helminths into a medically-approved drug would be a long and costly process.

“The primary problem is that there is no incentive to think about the root causes of disease and work toward addressing those causes in Western society. Our current health care system is medicine-based. Medicine, by its nature, is reactive, waiting until a patient gets sick before trying to patch up the problem,” Parker said.

“To be effective, our health care system needs restructuring to focus on prevention and addressing root causes of disease. Overcoming this challenge is the greatest hurdle facing public health today. It has little to do with science or with technology, but rather with regulation and public policy.”

Parker believes that helminth therapy could potentially aid the treatment of chronic fatigue, migraine headaches, depression and anxiety disorders.

“Just as we understand how a healthy diet and exercise can help patients with heart disease, we understand the how an intestinal worm can help individuals with neuropsychiatric problems,” Parker said. “Although we don’t know everything about the science behind the solution, we understand that it works. What we don’t yet understand is how we can bring this ‘ancient technology’ to the modern world.”

The report, “Intestinal worms eating neuropsychiatric disorders? Apparently so“, was authored by Henry H. Kou and William Parker.