Finding the Right Autism Treatment
Early, intense therapy works, but hundreds of other treatments being used are untested.
Drug Treatments for Autism continued...
That's a problem, because nobody knows exactly what causes autism. But there
are some exciting leads, says Susan Swedo, MD, chief of the pediatric and
developmental neuropsychiatry branch of the National Institute of Mental
One exciting avenue of research, Swedo says, is the glutamate system -- a
chain of chemical messengers and receptors that represents one of the brains
communication channels. This brain circuit is important in Lou Gehrig's
disease, for which a glutamate-blocking drug called Rilutek is helpful.
Based on evidence that the glutamate system is overactive in childhood
obsessive-compulsive disorder, Swedo and colleagues tried treating OCD kids
"It was remarkably effective," Swedo tells WebMD.
If it worked in childhood OCD, perhaps it will help control repetitive
behavior in children with autism, Swedo suggests. Scahill agrees this is
"This is not pie in the sky. There is a lot of interest in the glutamate
system. It is highly relevant to schizophrenia, and probably
relevant to autism," Scahill says.
Yet another intriguing possible future treatment for autism is a brain
molecule called oxytocin.
"Oxytocin is a naturally occurring hormone involved in labor and
delivery that also plays a crucial role in attachment and early infant
bonding," Swedo says. "It is kind of intriguing because we have this
clue from baby mice genetically engineered to lack oxytocin -- they act like
the mother mouse is a stranger. So here in autism you have kids who get into
stranger anxiety. What if these kids had an oxytocin problem? It is an
A study of synthetic oxytocin infusions in adults suggested it might reduce
repetitive behaviors; further research continues.
Both Swedo and Scahill warn that only step-by-step scientific research can
show whether these new treatment ideas work. They point to what happened with
secretin, a hormone once hailed as an autism cure.
Spurred by huge numbers of parents giving secretin to their ASD kids,
researchers rushed to study the drugs effects.
"Secretin is right now the best-studied drug in autism," Scahill
says. "There have been 12 or 13 placebo-controlled trials, but not one
showed secretin to be better than placebo. Researchers spent vast amounts of
time and money on it and we don't have a lot to show for it. That is an example
of how it shouldn't go."