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3 different medical trials seek autism cure

August 10, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
More children will be diagnosed with autism this year than with cancer, diabetes and AIDS combined. There is no cure for autism. And there are no FDA-approved drugs that target the cause. But researchers are working to change that. There are three trials searching for answers to autism.Ben Unkle has autism. He knows what it's like to grow up different. "I have trouble doing things that other people can do naturally," said Ben.

He was diagnosed with autism at age 6. His little sister watched as he struggled.

"When we were in elementary school, people would tease him, in middle school, a lot," said Katie Unkle, Ben's sister. "I didn't like to watch him get hurt."

Right now, there are only two drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration for autistic children that help with irritability, tantrums and aggression.

"There's no medication for core autism symptoms," said Dr. L. Eugene Arnold, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry, The Ohio State University.

But that could be changing. Doctors are targeting a child's digestive system. Some believe that might be one source of the problem.

"Proteins can get through that shouldn't, that should be digested first, and there might be a reaction in the nervous system," said Arnold.

The inability to digest protein affects the release of amino acids, the building blocks essential for brain function. Children in this study are given digestive enzymes. The goal: to see if they clear up issues in the gut, and in turn, improve behavior.

In a second study, doctors are investigating whether cholesterol plays a role in autism.

"There may be a subgroup who have autism because of low cholesterol," said Arnold.

Experts believe some autistic children are missing an enzyme that makes cholesterol, which is needed for normal brain development.

In a third trial, doctors are testing an approved Alzheimer's drug to treat autism. Investigators are examining whether Namenda can help with motor skills and expressive language.

What may work for one child may not work for another.

"There are different reasons for different people having autism," said Arnold.

These three trials aim to get to the root of a mysterious disorder that impacts one out of every 110 children. Dr. Arnold says finding the cause is critical: $35 billion are spent on caring for people with autism each year in the U.S.

TARGETING THE CAUSE OF AUTISM: MEDICINE'S NEXT BIG THING?

BACKGROUND: According to eMedtv.com, males are four times more likely to have autism than are females. Research shows about one out of every 110 children has some form of autism. About 500,000 children under the age of 21 have autism. According to the Mayo Clinic, children with autism show symptoms in three major areas in terms of development: language development, behavior, and social interaction. Examples of social skill challenges are: poor eye contact, resists cuddling and holding, doesn't respond to his or her name, and retreats to time alone as opposed to time with others. A few symptoms of language development include: starting to talk later than 2 years of age, doesn't know how to put together words and sentences, and an inability to start a conversation or hold onto one. Lastly, behavioral concerns consist of: becoming perturbed when daily or routine things change, constant movement, and unusual sensitivity to light. Although there is no cure for autism, there are medications that can be taken in order to keep irritability, tantrums, and aggression at bay.

TRIALS SEARCHING FOR AN ANSWER: Although many trials and studies have been conducted looking for answers and cures to autism, three recent studies were conducted that may present some more answers. In one trial, doctors targeted the child's digestive system. Research showed that certain proteins can get through the child's digestive system that should be digested first. This affects the nervous system because the proteins are not being broken down. A second trial involved the investigation of whether or not cholesterol affects autism. Children with low cholesterol are at higher risk of developing autism. Furthermore, some doctors believe certain children are missing a key enzyme that produces cholesterol. By lacking this enzyme, brain development is affected, and autism may be the result. A third and final trial looked at a drug called Namenda. Currently, Namenda is used to help treat Alzheimer's, but some researchers believe this may also be an effective drug for improving motor skills and language in autistic children. Some side effects of Namenda include dizziness, headaches and pain. Allergic reactions such as rash, hives, and itching may occur as well.


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