New NIMH Research Program Launches Autism
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), part of the National
Institutes of Health (NIH), has launched three major clinical studies
on autism at its research program on the NIH campus in Bethesda,
Maryland. These studies are the first products of a new, integrated
focus on autism generated in response to reported increases in
autism prevalence and valid opportunities for progress. Initial
studies will define the characteristics of different subtypes of
autism spectrum disorders (ASD) (http://www.nimh.nih.gov/healthinformation/autismmenu.cfm)
and explore possible new treatments.
One study will define differences — both biological and behavioral — in
autistic children with diverse developmental histories. Increasingly,
scientists are considering the likelihood of “autisms,” that is,
multiple disorders that comprise autism. These studies seek to
better define the subtypes within autism. Children with regressive
autism appear to develop normal language and social skills but
then lose these with the onset of autism before age 3. Non-regressive
autism, the more common form of the disorder, begins early in life,
possibly before birth, with evidence of subtle deficits throughout
development. Children with these two forms of autism will be compared
with those who have other developmental disorders, including various
forms of developmental delay, as well as children with typical
development. In addition, researchers will study a subset of the
children in this study to investigate environmental factors that
may trigger symptoms of autism.
In another study, NIMH researchers will examine the use of the
antibiotic minocycline to measure its usefulness in treating regressive
autism. Past research suggests that autism may be linked with changes
in the immune response that cause inflammation in the brain. Minocycline
has known anti-inflammatory effects and has been shown to be helpful
in other brain disorders such as Huntington’s disease.
The third study seeks to address the widespread but unproven theory
that autism may be treated successfully by chelation therapy, which
seeks to remove heavy metals from the blood. Chelation is more
commonly used to treat lead toxicity, but currently, many families
seek the treatment to try to remove mercury and other metals from
their autistic children’s blood. This practice is based on the
belief that many cases of autism were caused by exposure to thimerosol,
a mercury-based preservative previously used in childhood vaccines.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, since 2001, all
vaccines recommended for children 6 years of age and younger have
contained either no thimerosal or only trace amounts, with the
exception of inactivated flu vaccine, which is manufactured in
formulations both containing and free of thimerosal. Thimerosal-free
influenza vaccine licensed for use in children six to 23 months
of age is available in limited supply. Additionally, new pediatric
vaccines that have received licensure do not contain thimerosal.
Regardless, many families continue to turn to chelation as a therapy
for autism. NIMH will conduct a controlled study to test the efficacy
and safety of chelation for children with autism spectrum disorders.
However, the chelation also can remove essential mineral nutrients,
such as calcium, iron, and zinc.
“Because chelation therapy is not specific for mercury alone,
it is important to conduct a systematic, controlled trial to determine
whether or not chelation therapy is beneficial or potentially harmful
to children with autism,” says Susan Swedo, M.D., who leads the
branch on pediatric behavioral research in the NIMH Division of
Intramural Research Programs (http://intramural.nimh.nih.gov/),
where the autism studies are being conducted.
Autism is a mental disorder that arises in early childhood and
is characterized by delays in development of social and communication
skills, as well as restricted interests and repetitive behaviors.
Autism has a variety of presentations, and may represent several
different diseases. It is part of a larger group of disorders,
often referred to as autism spectrum disorders or ASDs, that also
includes Asperger’s syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder.
Developing better screening or diagnostic tools and finding effective
treatments depend on gaining more information about these various
disorders and subtypes, which currently are reported to affect
2 — 6 out of every 1000 children.
The NIMH Intramural Research Program is committed to conducting
reliable and unbiased clinical research to improve human health.
Each of the proposed studies has undergone a rigorous review process
to ensure the quality and safety of the research. To learn more
about this process or to find general information on clinical trials,
please visit http://ClinicalTrials.gov.
Approximately 500 scientists work in the NIMH Division of Intramural
Research Programs (http://intramural.nimh.nih.gov/) located on
the main NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland. Intramural scientists
range from molecular biologists working in laboratories to clinical
researchers working with patients at the NIH Clinical Center. Through
its Division of Extramural Activities (http://www.nimh.nih.gov/dea/index.cfm),
NIMH supports more than 3,500 research grants and contracts to
researchers at universities and other institutions across the country
and overseas. On average, over 80 percent of the NIMH research
budget is allotted to extramural research. To learn more about
the different research divisions at NIMH, please visit http://www.nimh.nih.gov/about/compon.cfm.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) — The Nation's
Medical Research Agency — includes 27 Institutes and
Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and
Human Services. It is the primary federal agency for conducting
and supporting basic, clinical and translational medical research,
and it investigates the causes, treatments, and cures for both
common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and
its programs, visit www.nih.gov.