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Autism Treatment Study Using ABA and TMS - Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation

Posted Jun 23 2009 4:47pm
The University of Louisville has received NIH funding to conduct a clinical trial of an autism treatment that combines magnetic stimulation with ABA therapy. My first reaction when I read about magnetic stimulation as a possible autism treatment was to assume it was some wonky swimming with dolphins type of autism "treatment". But the University of Louisville news release provides an interesting explanation for the theory behind magnetic stimulation as a possible autism treatment.

A previous pilot study had shown that "repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), creates an electric current that enhances specific cells’ ability to protect the brain from sensory overload in one region of the brain". The researchers believe this eases sensory overload permitting greater focus on learning. The new study will use a higher frequency, twice the number of sessions and will also utilize ABA therapy.

Obviously TMS is not, at this time, an evidence based treatment for autism. The only way that new treatments can be developed and acquire an evidence based status is through study and experimentation. I assume that with the involvement of the NIH and the University of Louisville all necessary ethical and safety protocols for the participants will be followed. Hopefully the results will indicate a way to help enhance the learning abilities of persons with autism. As I read the press release the study may also disclose more information generally about brain connectivity issues and autism disorders:

NIH to fund U of L clinical trial of autism treatment

EUREKA award recognizes high impact, innovative research

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – A promising treatment of autism has earned National Institutes of Health funding for University of Louisville researchers. This award will fund a clinical trial that combines magnetic stimulation with behavior therapy in people with autism. Researchers believe this approach will ease major symptoms of autism, which in turn will help participants focus on therapy to improve social interactions.

“This study, which builds on discoveries made here at UofL in the last five years, offers a new kind of hope for people with autism. It has the potential to change science’s way of thinking about autism treatment,” said Larry Cook, UofL executive vice president for health affairs.

“We have focused on using our new understanding of brain function to treat autism, instead of using medications to remediate its consequences,” explained neuroscientist Manuel Casanova.

The $900,000 NIH award will fund a four-year clinical trial.

Casanova and a team of researchers previously mapped the way tiny strands of brain tissue called cortical cell minicolumns develop and connect. Their research suggests that minicolumn defects interfere with information processing because a lack of “sound-proofing” between minicolumns leads to sensory overload, which magnifies underlying social and communication deficits.

A pilot study confirmed that people with autism have fewer tantrums and repetitive behaviors symptomatic of sensory overload after a low-frequency magnetic field is pulsed around their brains through a coil placed near the scalp. This process, known as repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), creates an electric current that enhances specific cells’ ability to protect the brain from sensory overload in one region of the brain.

“Neurological and psychological test results and brain activity measurements tell us that TMS helps with the symptoms that people with autism find most distressing,” Casanova said. “We believe that relief will give them the opportunity to learn to be more social adept and emotionally responsive.”

In this trial, patients will receive a higher frequency of magnetic stimulation and more than twice the number of sessions administered in the pilot study. This treatment will be paired for the first time with applied behavior analysis (ABA) to help participants learn and practice socially appropriate methods of relating to other people.

This study also makes use of new understanding about the brain’s innate connectivity. The brain of a person with an autism spectrum disorder is structured to make short, local connections between minicolumns as it processes information. The TMS treatment focuses on cells in specific regions of the brain and then relies on the cells’ connectivity to communicate the change to other regions.

“This connectivity allows us to train other regions of the autistic brain to manage the noise that causes sensory overload without sacrificing the talents that result from the natural brain structure,” Casanova said.

The National Institutes of Health’s EUREKA (Exceptional, Unconventional Research Enabling Knowledge Acceleration) program funds researchers who are testing exceptionally novel, unconventional research that could yield an extremely high impact on research.

Researchers are targeting children from the Louisville metropolitan area for this trial. Parents who want to inquire about the study should call 502-852-0404.

 autism


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