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."

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Production Coordinator

    £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Production Coordinator is required to ...

    Recruitment Genius: Finance Assistant

    £28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opening has arisen ...

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

    £28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

    Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

    £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

    Day In a Page

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn