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Deep Brain Stimulation May Improve Autism Symptoms

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In a first, doctors say electrodes implanted in the brain of a 13-year-old with severe autism alleviated the boy’s behaviors and allowed him to speak for the first time.

The approach has only been tested on one person, but the German research team that treated the boy said the results reported this month in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience could lead to a better understanding of what’s going on in the brains of those with autism.

Prior to receiving the experimental treatment, the boy who is now 14 and is diagnosed with autism and intellectual disability, engaged in serious, life-threatening self-injurious behaviors, researchers said.

Despite trying various medications, he was nonverbal, unable to interact socially with anyone other than his parents and brother, could not make eye contact and did not sleep more than an hour-and-a-half at a time before waking up to scream, the study indicates. So harmful were the boy’s behaviors that near-permanent restraints were employed to keep him from injuring himself.

Doctors at the University of Cologne in Germany report that they implanted electrodes deep in the boy’s brain, ultimately finding success by stimulating the amygdala area, which is known to affect memory and emotion.

Following the treatment, the boy’s parents reported that his behaviors decreased in frequency and severity, he was able to sleep better and he began enjoying activities like car rides and trying new foods which were previously impossible. What’s more, after six months the boy started saying single words like “papa” and “mama” for the first time.

When the stimulation stopped for four weeks because the battery in the device ran out, the symptoms became more severe again before improving when the battery power was renewed.

“For the first time, we demonstrate that (deep brain stimulation) in the latter structure has the potential to markedly reduce (self-injurious behavior), and also to improve features pertinent to the autistic syndrome, such as deficits in social contacts, affect-modulation and speech, fear and anxiety as well as sleep disorders,” the researchers wrote.

Further study is needed to understand exactly how stimulation from the electrodes is affecting the brain, researchers said.

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Comments (10 Responses)

  1. Tacitus says:

    What we have here is an anecdote. It’s interesting, but not compelling. It certainly doesn’t deserve the high-flying title given to this article.

  2. J. Darrow says:

    DBS is a recognized and widely-used treatment for certain cases of Parkinson’s Disease. It’s interesting to me, as a person with PD and as mom to a daughter with Asperger’s, that DBS might someday help severely autistic children as well.

  3. Rosella A. Alm says:

    Regarding the comment from J. Darrow: my father -in-law suffered from Parkinson’s and I noticed how much his behavior resembled my son’s behavior.

  4. Lorraine says:

    @Tacitus. Often scientific research started with anecdotal evidence. i.e. people with Tourette’s that were trying to quit smoking found the nicotene patches lessened their symptoms and then studies re same were persued….plus at the end of this article they said further study needs to be persued. Unless you have lived with a child as challenging as this and believe me when I say there is not research $$ being thrown at this population then please do not poo poo on this.

  5. mainer says:

    Personally, the idea that an invasive procedure such as deep brain stimulation would be used for autism horrifies me.

  6. T. Edmund Jenkin says:

    Check this out:

    Conflict of Interest Statement
    Volker Sturm is co-founder and shareholder in a start-up company (ANM GmbH, Cologne) aiming at the development and production of innovative Neurostimulators.

    Just saying

  7. KA101 says:

    I wonder what it’s like to not have a way to communicate with those upon whom one depends for one’s basic needs. That must be a real challenge–unlike the caregivers who can’t communicate with their ward, such an individual not only cannot communicate but also cannot satisfy the needs on xyr own.

    Maybe such an individual would feel horrible merely for existing; the only way xe had to attract attention starts inflicting damage on the caregiver or becomes a police-punishable offense, and xe simply doesn’t know how else to handle the situation.

    Unless you are an autistic person who finds that nonautistic persons repeatedly dismiss your concerns as inferior to their inconvenience at not having an NT child, kindly refrain from using infantilizing language when dismissing autistics’ concerns.

    (Ideally, you wouldn’t dismiss our concerns at all.)

  8. Tacitus says:

    @Lorraine, You don’t know me, so I will thank you not to speculate on my life experiences and how I would react to different ones. Obviously you are not prepared to predict my responses to new situations when you don’t even know the situations I have actually been in.

    My point was entirely and purely factual. We have no basis for even wondering what caused the change in this boy’s behavior. None. It’s all a matter of speculation. Yet both the title of the article and the conclusion to the study claim that something definite has been found. Why should we throw money at people who are being dishonest? The answer to frightening and destructive behavior will not be found by allowing unscrupulous people to exploit other people’s desperation.

  9. JCS says:

    @mainer: The treatment is certainly severe, and as some have already noted in the comments, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of the study. However, for cases where traditional therapies are simply ineffective and the individual’s behaviors are potentially gravely dangerous, this could be a promising last ditch effort. I personally think it could be a better option than turning a kid into a drug-induced zombie for the rest of his life, which seems to be option of choice in these situations.

  10. R Howarth says:

    This is a very promising area of study. As we now know, genetic malfunctions can result in neurological impairments. Electric stimulation is routinely used to retrain neural connections post-operatively and the long-term use of Gabapentin, an anti-convulsant, is widely used to promote nerve healing and regeneration. The point being that missing linkages can be developed over time.

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