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Finding the Right Autism Treatment

Early, intense therapy works, but hundreds of other treatments being used are untested.

Drug Treatments for Autism continued...

A more recent study is looking at whether the antidepressant Celexa, which helps control symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, can reduce repetitive behaviors in children with ASD. Results of that study are expected soon.

Scahill notes that all of these studies have looked for ASD symptoms that match symptoms for which psychiatric treatments exist. Now, however, researchers are cautiously exploring a larger goal -- treating autism itself.

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 Health.

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 With Rilutek.

"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 possible.

"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 interesting clue."

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.

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