After a disease's discovery, researchers look for cures. Issues like cancer, Alzheimer's disease, and AIDS consume the work of researchers all over the globe. The cures they find could save millions of lives.
Why is there no autism cure yet? The disease was discovered in the 1940s, so it seems like researchers have had a lot of time to find answers.
For some researchers, a cure isn't the answer. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complicated condition that stems from plenty of competing triggers, including genes, the environment, and parental health. They say untangling all of those cues could take decades, and that's time better spent on finding a way to help people live with ASD.
But some researchers are looking into an autism cure. While 2020 may not be the year a solution is found, plenty of exciting discoveries happen every day.
Could the Gut Hold Clues?
Most autism symptoms are behavioral. People speak or act differently than their peers. But many people with autism have gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms, including constipation or chronic diarrhea. That led some researchers to examine the gut's role in ASD development.
In a 2019 study, researchers performed fecal transplants on people with autism. That involves:
- Samples. Healthy people provide stool for the research team.
- Preparation. The samples are prepared in a laboratory, so they're safe to use.
- Injection. Doctors place the samples inside the intestines of people with autism.
Fecal transplants move bacteria from one person's body to another, and in theory, movement like this changes the way the brain works and the gut feels.
Two years after the transplants, researchers spotted a 45% reduction in core ASD symptoms. That suggests the therapy both works and persists.
But there are problems with this study, including:
- Sample size. Only 18 people were included.
- Diet changes. Some people in the study ate differently at follow-up than they did when they started in the study.
- Observation. Researchers can't say why the treatment works. They only know that people seemed to get better as they observed them.
Other researchers are using mice to understand the link between autism and the gut. They take bacteria from humans, apply it to mice, and watch how the mice react. These studies are small, and the results are slightly controversial.
Could Medications Help?
Plenty of diseases respond to medication management. Even big foes, including HIV, have fallen in response to therapies that rest in a medicine chest. Many researchers wonder if autism could be tackled by a pill or injection too.
In a study published in January 2020, researchers identified 83 children, ages 3 to 6. The children were split into two groups.
- Treatment: These children got 0.5 mg of bumetanide twice per day for three months.
- Control: These children got no active treatment.
Then, the researchers used the Childhood Autism Rating Scale to assess each child. Before the study began, children all got similar scores. At the end of the research period, the treatment group got better. The control group did not.
Researchers used brain scans, and they proved that the test medication boosted two key brain chemicals. They theorize that those chemical changes helped the children get better. But the sample size of the study is small, and the research didn't last long.
Medications can be tricky, and sometimes, solutions are approved before researchers understand the risks. For example, the medication aripiprazole entered the autism market in 2009. In 2020, researchers linked the drug to significant weight gain, movement problems, behavior problems, and more.
Parents who give their child a new medication take a risk. Everyone involved hopes the pills make the child better, not worse.
Genetic Research Continues
Researchers know that genes play a role in autism development. Parents with autism tend to have kids with the same condition. But researchers don't know which genes are intimately responsible for disease development.
One group of researchers wants to find out. The SPARK for Autism study asks people with autism to submit saliva samples. The team looks for similarities and differences among all the samples, and in time, they may suggest therapies for people with similar genetic backgrounds.
In April 2020, about 23,000 people were enrolled in this program. Researchers want 50,000 enrolled.
Genetic studies could help researchers uncover cellular vulnerabilities that lead to ASD.
For example, researchers know that myelin formation is altered in some people with autism. Myelin is fatty and thick, and it covers nerves to keep messages from jumping from one place to another. People with a genetic variation don't produce enough myelin.
If this gene is altered early in life, the theory goes, a baby could be cured before birth, sparing a family the need for later therapy. This exciting research is ongoing.
Beware of Frauds
So far, we've told you about plenty of studies and potential theories about autism cures. There are hundreds, even thousands, more out there. Some are dangerous.
It's smart to read the studies and understand the research. Before you put any theory to use on your child, you should:
- Examine the data. Is the rationale coherent? How do proponents say the solution works?
- Look for verification. Has the research been published in a reputable, peer-reviewed journal?
- Ponder risks and benefits. How might the solution help your child? How could it make things worse?
- Ask your doctor. Is this a proven therapy that your medical team recommends?
Use the same tactic when you encounter autism "cures" on social media sites like Facebook. As reporters explain, plenty of people share theories online that could harm your child, and few of these people explain that they're not medical experts. Don't let them entice you into doing something that could hurt, not help, someone you love.
When Can We Expect an Autism Cure?
If cures were available, families wouldn't search social media for DIY solutions. Unfortunately, it's not clear when an autism cure, verified by medical experts, will become clear.
When researchers kick off studies, they disclose when the work will be done. Often, they miss deadlines. Experts say just 20% of autism studies have on-time results published.
It's hard to wait for answers to autism questions. For now, that's exactly what we must do. Invest in therapies proven to help, like applied behavior analysis (ABA). Support your loved one as best you can. And hope that the cure we're looking for emerges soon.
- Why the Focus of Autism Research Is Shifting Away From Searching for a 'Cure'. (September 2019). NBC News.
- Autism Symptoms Reduced Nearly 50 Percent Two Years After Fecal Transplant. (April 2019). Science Daily.
- Long-Term Benefit of Microbiota Transfer Therapy on Autism Symptoms and Gut Microbiota. (April 2019). Nature.
- Five Hot Topics in Autism Research in 2019. (December 2019). Spectrum.
- Prescription Drug Improves Symptoms of Autism by Targeting Brain's Chemical Messengers. (January 2020). American Association for the Advancement of Science.
- How Aripiprazole's Promise for Treating Autism Fell Short. (February 2020). Spectrum.
- Unlocking the Genetics of Autism Spectrum Disorder. (April 2020). Texas Medical Center.
- Loss of Insulation on Neurons May Contribute to Autism. (March 2020). Spectrum.
- Inadequate Myelination of Neurons Tied to Autism: Study. (February 2020). The Scientist.
- Beware of Non-Evidence-Based Treatments. Autism Science Foundation.
- Sponsors of Clinical Trials May Report Data Late or Never. (February 2020). Spectrum.