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Controlled Evaluation of the Effects of Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy on the Behavior of 16 Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Posted Apr 21 2011 2:00am

Hyperbaric oxygen treatment (HBOT) has become a big topic in the world of CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) and autism. An upcoming parent convention with a focus on CAM is even sponsored by an HBOT company. A few papers have come out, without much clear evidence of benefit.

A recent paper looks again at HBOT. This paper has a few limitations. Amongst these: there were only 16 participants and, well, I consider papers by Thoughtful House and by Andrew Wakefield in particular to be somewhat problematic.

Here is the abstract:

Controlled evaluation of the effects of hyperbaric oxygen therapy on the behavior of 16 children with autism spectrum disorders.

Jepson B, Granpeesheh D, Tarbox J, Olive ML, Stott C, Braud S, Yoo JH, Wakefield A, Allen MS.

Thoughtful House Center for Children, Austin, TX, USA.
Abstract

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) has been used to treat individuals with autism. However, few studies of its effectiveness have been completed. The current study examined the effects of 40 HBOT sessions at 24% oxygen at 1.3 ATA on 11 topographies of directly observed behavior. Five replications of multiple baselines were completed across a total of 16 participants with autism spectrum disorders. No consistent effects were observed across any group or within any individual participant, demonstrating that HBOT was not an effective treatment for the participants in this study. This study represents the first relatively large-scale controlled study evaluating the effects of HBOT at the level of the individual participant, on a wide array of behaviors.

One problem with HBOT studies in the past is the attempt to use a placebo like therapy . It seems to this observer at least that it would be quite easy to distinguish placebo vs. real HBOT. The current study avoids that. They took data during a baseline period, during the HBOT therapy weeks and a post-HBOT period. They found that there was no benefit.

These findings diverge considerably from those of Rossignol et al. (2009). The current study controls for the potential ‘‘washing out’’ of the effect when group data are averaged (as must be done in a between-groups design) by carefully measuring potential changes in 11 topographies of behavior over time across 16 individuals. If there was a subgroup for which HBOT was effective, it seems likely that at least one such child would have participated in the current study. The lack of an effect for any participant in the current study makes the existence of such a subgroup seem implausible.

The paper concludes:

News programs and community blogs report that many families of children with autism are using HBOT therapy. The cost of such treatment may range up to $150 per hour. Families report using anywhere from 40 to 120 h of HBOT. These hours are in lieu of other therapies such as applied behavior analysis, speech therapy, and occupational therapy and do not include travel time to the medical center where the therapy is provided. Some families purchase the chambers in order to provide therapy in their home. A number of websites focus on renting ($1,395 per month) and selling ($8,495–27,995) chambers to families. Given the financial and time-investment required for HBOT and the conflicting study outcomes to date, we cannot recommend HBOT as a treatment for autism until such time as more conclusive favorable results are demonstrated.

This is consistent with a previous study which included one of the above authors, Randomized trial of hyperbaric oxygen therapy for children with autism , which concluded:

This study found HBOT to have no significant beneficial effect on ASD symptoms. The experimental design of the current study is of a higher rigor than those employed in previous studies which have suggested that HBOT is effective. Further, the dependent measures included were far more comprehensive than those included in previous studies; therefore it is unlikely that an effect was present which was not detected. Based upon the findings of the current study, HBOT delivered at 24% oxygen at 1.3 atmospheric is not recommended for the treatment of ASD symptoms.

Do’C over at the AutismStreet blog has followed the HBOT research pretty closely. Here is his list of articles skeptical about HBOT .

My own view HBOT is expensive, time consuming, not effective for treating autism and will continue to be promoted heavily to parents looking for a way to help their children. There is something profoundly wrong with the world of CAM and autism if they don’t move away from therapies like HBOT.

  1. Neuroskeptic:
    Hah! Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy. "So crazy, even Wakefield thinks it's crazy."
  2. Greg K:
    What? Thoughtless House shooting down one of their own alternative "treatments"? Why? To prove they're "mainstream"? What? The world doesn't make sense anymore.
  3. Audrey:
    Not only is it ineffective, HBOT has nontrivial risks. Certainly there are medical disorders for which the benefits outweigh the risks (like carbon monoxide poisoning), but it is irresponsible to expose a child to the risks of HBOT for a non-indicated condition. Risks include eardrum rupture, seizures, cataracts, barotrauma to organs, and - especially when you use a home system - the whole damn system catching on fire. O2 is highly flammable, just ask the Apollo 1 crew.
  4. Julian Frost:
    Audrey, we know the fire risks. One of the posts on LBRB mentioned a fire starting in a chamber with an autistic child and a caregiver in it. The caregiver died in hospital. The child (luckily) survived.
  5. Rose:
    Nature abhors a vacuum. Until science comes up with something...

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