New research points to an unexpected option in the world of autism spectrum therapies: low-dose ketamine treatment.
A small study published in the recent issue of the journal Human Genetics and Genomic Advances, suggests low-dose autism treatment is safe, well-tolerated, and effective in children with ADNP syndrome (Helsmoortel-VanDerAa syndrome).
ADNP is a rare neurodevelopmental disorder that’s the result of mutations in the activity-dependent neuroprotective protein (ADNP) gene, which plays a role in brain formation, development, and function.
Low-dose ketamine autism spectrum therapies
“We were intrigued by the preclinical evidence suggesting that low-dose ketamine may increase levels of the ADNP protein and compensate for its loss in ADNP syndrome, so we designed this study to evaluate the safety, tolerability, and behavioral outcomes of low-dose ketamine in children with the syndrome,” Alexander Kolevzon, MD, Clinical Director of the Seaver Autism Center, which led the research, said in a statement.
“We also sought to explore the feasibility of using electrophysiological biomarkers and computerized eye-tracking to assess sensitivity to treatment.”
The researchers used a single 0.5mg/kg dose given intravenously over a 40-minute period to ten children ages six to 12 years old. The results are promising, the researchers note, citing the most common adverse events as silliness in 50 percent of patients, fatigue affected 40 percent, and 40 percent showed increased aggression.
The benefits were notable a week following the sessions: increased social behavior, reduced attention deficiency, and reduced repetitive or restricted behaviors, as well as reduced sensory sensitivities.
“We are encouraged by these findings, which provide preliminary support for ketamine to help reduce negative effects of this devastating syndrome,” Dr. Kolevzon said. “Future studies using a placebo-controlled design and studying the effects of repeated dosing over a longer duration of time and in a larger cohort of participants are needed before ketamine is used clinically, but our study is a promising first step in that process.”
Ketamine, like other psychedelic substances, has been studied for its mental health benefits. Its off-label use has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression, among other issues. Unlike other psychedelics such as psilocybin and LSD, which are still illegal in the U.S., ketamine is legal. A growing number of clinics across the U.S. offer guided ketamine treatment sessions.
Psychedelics as mental health treatment
While psychedelics are seeing increased acceptance for use in treating conditions including depression and PTSD, there’s not been significant research into viability for autism spectrum therapies.
“There’s a lot of caution, but there’s certainly discussion,” Clinton Canal, assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences at Mercer University in Atlanta, told Spectrum News. “I think the big thing is, we need a lot more research.”
Autism is often diagnosed at a young age, and a range of autism spectrum therapies are typically tried as early as possible. And given the young age of those diagnosed and the potential side effects of psychedelics (hallucinations, nausea, etc), it’s not been a highly studied potential.
One 2018 study on autism and MDMA (3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, also known as the street drug ecstasy)—funded by MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies—did show potential for use in treating autism in adults. A small group of subjects were either given MDMA or a placebo across two sessions over a month. The subjects who received the MDMA showed greater reductions in social anxiety, with effects lasting months. The placebo control group was also offered the MDMA sessions after the trial ended, showing similar results.
“There was definitely a notable and durable drop in social anxiety scores,” Alicia Danforth, a clinical psychologist and researcher at the Lundquist Institute for Biomedical Innovation at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, California, said. The researchers say about 10 percent of people won’t respond to the drug. But for most people, it’s a game-changer.
“This doesn’t work for everybody. But when it does work, it can be quite profound,” Danforth said.