Helminths and Mental Health – Research Desperately Needed

I was very excited to see  a new paper[i] by Dr. William Parker and his colleague, Henry Kou, at Duke University, looking at the effects of the loss of our helminths and the relationship to mental illness.  The paper is, in some ways, a plea to the scientific community to look at the potential use of helminths in treating neuropsychiatric diseases.

PsyPost has an excellent summary[ii] of the paper, and also includes comments by Dr. Parker:  “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.  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).”

Dr. Parker goes on to explain that the anti-inflammatory effect of helminths (both directly and also, indirectly via their benefit to the bacterial microbiome) is likely the reason for the improvements people report.

As I have railed about before on this blog , research on helminths is unfortunately going nowhere fast.  The problem is, as Dr. Parker states, “…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….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.”

From the abstract of the paper:

“Sociomedical studies of humans ‘‘self-treating” with helminths as well as limited studies in animal models strongly suggest that helminth therapy may be a productive approach toward treating a range of neuropsychiatric disorders, including chronic fatigue, migraine headaches, depression and anxiety disorders”


“It is argued that benevolent donation for early trials as well as changes in regulatory policy to accommodate helminth therapy may be important for the field to develop. It is hoped that future success with some high-profile trials can propel the field, now dominated more by self-treatment than by clinical trials, forward into the main stream of medicine.”

Unfortunately, I don’t foresee anyone being the $2 million (at least) benevolent Dr. Parker would need to do just one decent trial…but we can always hope.


[i] Kou, HH, Parker, W. Intestinal worms eating neuropsychiatric disoders?  Apparentely so.  Brain Research.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brainres.2018.01.023

[ii] http://www.psypost.org/2018/03/scientists-think-intestinal-worms-help-treat-neuropsychiatric-diseases-50832

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