In excess, cholesterol can be harmful, but a certain amount is crucial for the proper development and maintenance of the brain. So it stands to reason that lower levels of cholesterol, particularly during crucial periods of growth, can lead to mental dysfunction, said principal investigator Dr. L. Eugene Arnold, a child psychiatrist at Ohio State’s Nisonger Center who specializes in researching and treating autism.
“We think low cholesterol may be contributing to the core autism symptoms of a subgroup of children with autism spectrum disorders,” said Arnold. “Cholesterol is not only in the food we eat, but we also make cholesterol, which is necessary for normal brain development and for the manufacture of vitamin D from sunlight. Vitamin D is necessary for brain development, so there are several possible ways that having low levels of cholesterol can affect the brain.”
Some children with autism appear to be typically developing 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.
Researchers have noticed that cholesterol levels in children with autism spectrum disorders tend to be below the normal range compared to the general population. Normal or healthy cholesterol levels range from 120 to 190, but in up to 10 percent of children with autism, cholesterol levels are below 120, and in some cases, even below 100, Arnold said.
“The lower levels of cholesterol could be attributed to poor absorption or a missing enzyme to make the cholesterol,” said Arnold. “There are many different causes of autism, of course, from genetic through environmental, so what we’re investigating here will not apply to all children or people with autism, but it may help a subgroup.”
Too much cholesterol can do more harm than good, especially when it comes to cardiovascular health, so dosages will be closely monitored to find the optimal dose.
“It’s very important that we not just rush out and try to give everyone with autism more cholesterol, because for some of them it may be harmful,” Arnold said.
Ohio State’s Nisonger Center is teaming up with Johns Hopkins University/Kennedy Krieger Institute and the National Institutes of Health to conduct a phase I/II double-blind study for children ages 4-11 who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders: autistic disorder, Asperger’s disorder, or pervasive developmental disorder – not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS).
Potential study participants will be screened, and 60 children who are found to have abnormally low cholesterol will participate in a 12-week double-blind study in which they will receive either the cholesterol or a placebo, followed by 12 weeks of “open” cholesterol supplementation.
The study, which is currently enrolling participants, is open to children with autism spectrum disorders who are ages 4-11. For additional information about the study at Ohio State, contact Stacey Moone at 614-292-3971 or [email protected] or visit www.psychmed.osu.edu. For information about the study at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, contact study coordinator Diane Lanham at 443-923-7613 or [email protected], and at the National Institutes of Health, contact study coordinator Sandra Conley at 301-594-2005 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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