Unlike other psychiatric and neurological conditions there is currently no medical treatment for high functioning autism or Asperger’s.
But researchers in Melbourne say a “critically important” new treatment could improve the social skills of people with autism spectrum disorder and it all comes down to stimulating the brain with magnetic fields.
Treatment for autism at present centres on behaviour intervention, but it relies on the early diagnoses of children, associate professor of psychology from Deakin University Dr Peter Enticott said ahead of his talk at the Australian Academy of Science Shine Dome on Wednesday night.
“As it stands autism is incredibly prevalent, the rates at the moment suggest one in 68 kids are being diagnosed in the states [US] and we’re not too different from that in Australia,” he said.
“They’ll often get treatment for the associated problems, around depression and anxiety, but in terms of the social symptoms and obsessions and restricted interests of autism there really isn’t much out there past early childhood,” Dr Enticott said.
Using a plastic-coated metal coil the non-invasive repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) does not require anaesthetic and has few side effects.
It works by sending a magnetic pulse through to the brain generating an electric current to activate brain cells.
Results from last year’s trial involving 28 participants have proved promising, Dr Enticott said.
Those that underwent 15 minutes of treatment daily for two weeks showed a significant reduction in their social symptoms and anxiety one month after the trial compared to those that had a placebo.
“Not everybody got better, but we certainly saw a few people with fairly dramatic responses,” Dr Enticott said.
Some participants showed increased eye contact and engagement with other people and the family of one woman noticed a “remarkable change”.
“She started taking an interest in other people’s lives and showed compassion,” Dr Enticott said. “All of a sudden she had an interest in being in social groups and interpersonal relationships.”
The technique has been used as an alternative to electroconvulsive therapy to activate parts of the brain in people with treatment-resistant depression for 30 years worldwide and for 15 years in Australia.
Close to 10 years ago Dr Enticott and his colleagues decided to investigate its potential for people with autism.
“With autism there’s a lot of regions in the brain that are less active then they should be and a lot of these regions are the sorts of brain areas we use when we interact with and understand other people,” he said.
Although the study showed a “minor change” at a group level, Dr Enticott said researchers were now trialling more intensive treatments over a longer period of time with brain scans before and after and a longer follow-up period.
Researchers are also asking third parties close to the participants if they notice changes.
He said the treatment was very different to electroconvulsive therapy, when electricity was is used to generate a seizure in the brain.
The majority of people had no side effects beyond a mild tension headache in about 5 per cent of cases, but patients feel a “tapping sensation” and the electrical activity generated by the magnets could induce muscle twitching.
“It’s not something people are likely to find painful or uncomfortable.”
Dr Enticott said seizures from the treatment were an “incredibly rare” side effect never observed in Australia.
This article first appeared on ‘Canberra Times’ on 4 November 2014.