Our body’s overall functioning relies on the biological processes carried in our tissues and organs; if a particular part of the brain has not developed properly due to these underpinning processes, a respective physiological dysfunction may occur.
Children with autism and other neurodevelopmental conditions often also have common physiological conditions that impact their daily living such as genetic disorders, metabolic dysfunction, nutritional deficiency, immune dysfunction, gastrointestinal disorders, and sleep disorders. Genetics and environmental conditions have an effect on these biological processes as well.
This article looks at physiological processes in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) which have been shown to impact physiology and ultimately cause the symptoms of autism we observe. It also highlights biological treatments which improve these underlying dysfunctions.
What is biomedical treatment?
Biomedical treatment methods are used to reduce symptoms associated with psychological disorders by targeting specific physiological functions. For the treatment of autism-related symptoms, biomedical interventions target specific processes that impact a person’s brain function and development.
Biomedical treatments for autism are developed by comparing the physiology of individuals without autism and those with to study the differences at the cellular level. This helps determine which metabolic process has been impacted and to therefore understand what we observe in terms of the behavior of individuals with autism.
I am conscious this article may sound very scientific and be quite heavy-reading, so let’s breakdown some definitions:
- Autoantibodies are antibodies that our bodies mistakenly attack and cause a reaction in a person’s own tissues or organs
- Metabolism is a process that our body undergoes to provide energy for the production of new organic material
- Pathophysiology refers to a dysfunction of biological processes that cause disease or injury
We should also note that, because autism is a spectrum, these metabolic dysfunctions should not be assumed applicable to every individual on the spectrum. Also, please be wary that these treatments are suggested alternatives to common therapies for ASD, such as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), Verbal Behavioral Interventions (VBI), Pivotal Response Training (PRT), the TEACCH method, and Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), to name a few.
Which biomedical treatments can be used for autism?
Biomedical treatments have been developed as alternative forms of help for ASD symptoms from a biological perspective.
Abnormal changes that result in oxidative stress (impacted redox metabolism), mitochondrial dysfunction, immune dysregulation, folate dysregulation, tetrahydrobiopterin metabolism, and their interconnections are examples of known pathophysiology found in some individuals on the spectrum.
Let’s take a closer look at some of these biological abnormalities:
The mitochondrion is considered the powerhouse of the cell because it generates energy for the cell’s processes. If this is impacted, it can lead to poor growth, developmental delays and muscle weakness, neurological problems, seizures, migraines, strokes, and movement disorders, to name a few.
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Some treatments that have been used to treat mitochondrial dysfunction, have been shown to also alleviate autism symptoms in children.
Some studies have shown children with both autism and impaired mitochondrial functioning experience severe behavioral and cognitive difficulties. This is because the brain and other parts of the body require a lot of energy from the cell.
Treatments can include:
- Multivitamins containing B vitamins, antioxidants, vitamin E, and co-enzyme Q10
- Dietary supplements
These treatments are said to improve core and associated symptoms of autism.
Dysfunction in the folate metabolism
Folate is naturally found in food and its function is to create DNA and RNA. Through this process, the body is able to absorb certain B vitamins. If there is a lack of folate, symptoms could include, fatigue, tiredness, and muscle weakness, to name a few.
The folate cycle has receptors that are used as part of the folate metabolism. The association between the cycle and autism is that, when an autoantibody attaches to the receptor, which was meant for another molecule, it impacts the function of the folate system. According to studies, about 44-47% of children with autism positively had an autoantibody attached to the folate receptor.
Folic acid is a B vitamin, and treatment with folic acid is believed to improve verbal communication, receptive and expressive language, and attention.
Dysfunction in the redox metabolism
Natural or biological and artificial processes of life rely on redox reductions as a main source of energy. Various studies state that some autistic children have an abnormal redox metabolism.
Treatments for dysfunction in redox metabolism include complex treatment containing a vitamin and mineral supplement that includes antioxidants, co-enzyme Q10, B vitamins, and tetrahydrobiopterin. Other treatments that have antioxidant properties like carnosine have been said to improve behaviors and mitochondrial functioning.
Tetrahydrobiopterin (BH4) metabolism
BH4 occurs naturally in the tissues of our body. It is so interrelated to various processes in our bodies that, if the redox metabolism is affected, there is a good chance this is also impacted. If there’s a genetic deficiency in this molecule, it can cause neurological abnormalities
Treatment with sapropterin improves redox metabolism and alters any abnormality in autistic children. This treatment is shown to improve communication, cognitive ability, adaptability, social ability, and verbal expression in individuals with autism, mainly those five years of age and with relatively higher functioning.
Can autism really be medically treated?
From what the research studies stipulate, side effects aren’t common with many of the treatments highlighted above, but nausea and emesis is a documented side effect when a person is treated on an empty stomach. Regardless, it is important to remember that every child is different and thus will react differently to any form of biomedical treatment.
A study states that mitochondrial abnormality is found in 5-80% of autistic children, while folate autoantibodies have been found in 47-75% of children with autism. However, more studies need to be conducted on the prevalence of physiological abnormalities in autistic individuals.
Many children can benefit from biomedical treatments because their role is to improve physiological abnormalities. Scientists have not uncovered the underlying causes of the core symptoms of autism, but these treatments have been developed by studying our bodies’ processes
The goal of biomedical treatment for autism is to improve the life of children with autism as well as the lifestyle of their families—but parents should always carefully consult their child’s clinician before considering them.
Frye RE, Rossignol DA. (2014) Treatments for biomedical abnormalities associated with autism spectrum disorder. Frontiers in Pediatrics, Jun 27;2:66. doi:10.3389/fped.2014.00066
Pacheva I, Ivanov I. (2019) Targeted Biomedical Treatment for Autism Spectrum Disorders. Current Pharmaceutical Design ;25(41):4430-4453. doi: 10.2174/1381612825666191205091312
Medavarapu, S., Marella, L. L., Sangem, A., & Kairam, R. (2019). Where is the Evidence? A Narrative Literature Review of the Treatment Modalities for Autism Spectrum Disorders. Cureus, 11(1), e3901. https://doi.org/10.7759/cureus.3901