Drugs 'improve social skills of autism sufferers'

Scientists are opening a new front against autism by using drugs to alter brain chemistry that may ameliorate the worst effects of the condition.

At least three groups are experimenting with treatments which, it is hoped, could help individuals acquire language and social skills enabling them better to communicate.

Autism, which overwhelmingly affects boys, has been described as the "extreme male brain" – characterised by a love of routine, poor social understanding, a lack of warmth and a disregard of human contact.

Drugs currently prescribed are chiefly aimed at controlling aggression and anxiety, which afflicts some of those affected. But trials of new drugs which target the classic symptoms of autism are now beginning.

Initial results from a small trial of a drug called arbaclofen, presented at the International Meeting for Autism Research in Philadelphia last week, suggest it may improve social skills in people with fragile X syndrome and autism, including communication and sociability, and reduce outbursts of irritability. Fragile X affects one in 3,000 people worldwide and is the most common genetic cause of autism, with a quarter of fragile X males affected.

Randall Carpenter of Seaside Therapeutics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is testing the drug, told New Scientist: "People may learn more, learn to speak better, learn social skills and to be more communicative."

The researchers were working on the hypothesis that the absence of the fragile X gene causes disorders of synaptic function – disorders at the junctions or synapses between the nerves – and that this may also be the cause of the autistic symptoms. A successful treatment for fragile X may therefore also be effective in alleviating autistic symptoms. The trial involved 63 subjects aged between six and 40.

Elizabeth Berry-Kravis, who led the study at Rush University Medical Centre in Chicago, earlier treated a separate group of fragile X patients with a different drug, fenobam. Some patients showed calmed behaviour, reduced hyperactivity and lower anxiety, similar to the drug's action in earlier studies on mice.

"Currently there are no therapies on the market to treat cognitive deficits associated with fragile X syndrome. This pilot study [of fenobam] has identified the potential beneficial clinical effects, but further study is needed."

In a third development, scientists in France reported in February having tested a nasal spray containing the hormone oxytocin on 13 patients with "high-functioning" autism – those with normal or above-normal intelligence. Participants who inhaled the hormone were able to interact more easily with others.

"They respond more strongly to others and exhibit more appropriate social behaviour," wrote Elissar Andari, of the Institut des Sciences Cognitives, a French centre for neuroscience research.

Oxytocin is known as the "cuddle chemical", because it is believed to stimulate bonding between mother and baby at birth. Now a second study, led by Evdokia Anagnostou, a child neurologist at Bloorview Research Institute in Toronto, Canada, presented at the Philadelphia meeting last week, found that people with autism given the hormone twice daily for six weeks improved their social functioning. The researchers found they were better at recognising emotions and had a better quality of life than others given a placebo.

Geraldine Dawson, the chief science officer at the US charity Autism Speaks and a psychiatrist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said: "For the first time we are seeing drugs that could tackle core autism symptoms."

But Suzi Browne, a spokeswoman for the National Autistic Society in the UK, warned: "While there are recognised links between some forms of autism and fragile X syndrome, there are many other causes of autism, most of which are not yet fully understood.

"As the nature of autism is so complex, many interventions have been tried and tested over the years, but what works for one person won't necessarily work for another. While it is important to further our understanding of the connections between fragile X and autism, further rigorous research is required into any potential intervention, to properly understand and assess the impact that it could have on people's lives."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Rita Ora will replace Kylie Minogue as a judge on The Voice 2015
tv
Life and Style
tech
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
life
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Extras
indybest
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Graduate / Junior C# Developer

    £18000 - £25000 Per Annum + bonus and benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

    IT Project manager - Web E-commerce

    £65000 Per Annum Benefits + bonus: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: If you are...

    KS2 Teacher

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Chester: Key Stage 2 Teachers needed in Shropsh...

    DT Teacher - Food Technology & CACHE

    £24000 - £36000 per annum + pre 12 week AWR : Randstad Education Manchester Se...

    Day In a Page

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits