Researchers theorize that if children with autism experience over-activity of the same neurochemical at work in Alzheimer’s disease, then one of the medicines used for Alzheimer’s may help in autism, too.
“We know that the drug memantine is effective in people with Alzheimer’s disease,” says Michael Aman, director of research at the Nisonger Center. “Memantine actually serves to enhance cognitive function, or at least hold the line.”
Some children with autism appear normal before age 2 and then suddenly “regress,” losing language or social skills they had previously developed. Children with autism often have difficulty with pretend play, social interactions and verbal and nonverbal communication.
Memantine has been used to treat Alzheimer’s patients in the United States for nearly a decade. Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive, degenerative disease of the brain, which causes thinking and memory to become seriously impaired. It is the most common form of dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Society.
“In the case of Alzheimer’s, we’re talking about the loss of function. In the case of autistic disorder we’re talking about a failure to develop,” said Aman, who is seeking to enroll participants in a study of memantine.
No one knows for sure what causes children to develop autism. Imbalances of many neurochemicals have been implicated in autism, and one candidate is glutamate. This study was developed on the idea that over-excitation of glutamate may be a factor common to both Alzheimer’s disease and autism.
In Alzheimer’s disease, memantine is thought to work by reducing the effects of glutamate. The investigators hope that the study medicine will improve the participants’ social interaction and speech by blocking the effects of glutamate.
The study is designed to compare the active treatment, memantine, with a placebo, and is open to boys and girls ages 6-12 who have autism. Participants have a 50 percent chance of receiving either the Alzheimer’s drug or a placebo during the first 14 weeks of the study, followed by 48 weeks in which all participants will receive memantine.
Aman says most drugs for autism focus only on lessening symptoms that are often associated with autism, such as hyperactivity or tantrums. This study, funded by the Forest Research Institute, is designed to help improve core symptoms of autism such as communication, along with improving the quality of life of study participants.
An earlier study using memantine on children with autism showed promising results, giving researchers reason to expand their tests. Researchers are confident that the drug is safe because it has been used in Europe for nearly 30 years to help fight dementia, and was approved in the United States for use in Alzheimer’s patients in 2003.
Ohio State's Nisonger Center is accepting six children for this research study. Overall, the goal is to enroll a total of 104 children nationwide across the 16 participating sites. To be enrolled in the study, children must be in overall good health, speak in at least three-word phrases, and must have autism. If a diagnosis of autism is uncertain, the necessary testing can be provided for free.
For additional information about the study, contact Kathleen M. Kassouf, study coordinator, at 614-688-4656 or [email protected]
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism and related conditions affect one in 110 children. According to a 2007 survey, boys were four times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with autism.
The Nisonger Center, an interdisciplinary program at Ohio State, was founded in 1966 to provide assistance to people with disabilities, families, service providers and organizations by promoting inclusion of people with disabilities in education, health, employment and community settings.
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