One theory of autism proposes that damaged nerve cells prompt the disorder. People who follow this conjecture suggest infusing children with autism with stem cells that could repair those damaged cells.
The Sutter Neuroscience Institute in Sacramento, California today begins a trial study of such treatment. Similar trials are currently underway in Mexico and China. Scientific American's Kathleen Raven reports:
But for each of these officially registered trials, many more undocumented stem cell therapy treatments take place for clients who are willing to pay enough. "Our research is important because many people are going to foreign countries and spending a lot of money on therapy that may not be valid," says Michael Chez, a pediatric neurologist and lead investigator of the study at Sutter.
The California researchers will study 30 children with autism who already had banked cord blood. They'll first establish each of the participants' baseline skill levels. Next they'll inject half of the children with their own cord blood stem cells, and the other half with a saline placebo shot. Six months later they'll test the participants' vocabulary abilities. They'll then switch the treatment groups (those who got stem cells before will now get saline injections, and vice versa) and again test abilities after six months.
The complete study will run for 13 months, and each child will only receive one stem cell injection in total. The researchers are optimistic the treatments could lead to improvements in the children's skills, Raven writes:
Chez hypothesizes that one way autologous stem cell infusion might work is by reducing inflammation within the body's immune system. This would answer previous research that suggests that autism may be an autoimmune disease. "One of our exploratory goals will be to look at inflammatory markers in cells," he says.
A previous trial with stem cell therapy for cerebral palsy proved unsuccessful, though anecdotal reports from others suffering from neurological conditions call the treatment life-saving.
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