Friday, August 25, 2017

Magnetic promise: Can brain stimulation treat autism?

There are hints that transcranial magnetic stimulation, which uses electricity to change how brain cells function, might improve the symptoms of autism. But hopes are running way ahead of the facts.

“There’s tremendous excitement at the potential to have something that’s noninvasive, non-drug-based, with potentially fewer side effects,” says Michael Platt, a neurobiologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia who is studying the effects of TMS in monkeys. “But the fact of the matter is we don’t understand very much about how it works.”

The small studies so far have mainly used TMS as a research tool, gathering data on symptoms as an aside, so they cannot prove that it works as a treatment. Of the studies that specifically assessed it as a therapy, only one meets the highest standards for research of this type. Overall, the results have been mixed: Some people with autism benefit; others do not.

Still, some for-profit clinics have already begun treating people who have autism with TMS, a practice researchers say isn’t yet justified. “It’s worrisome,” says Lindsay Oberman, an autism researcher at Bradley Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, who has studied, among other things, how TMS changes neuronal connections in response to experience. “You could make somebody worse if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Read more here at Spectrum.