U of L researchers have a possible breakthrough therapy for autism - wave3.com-Louisville News, Weather & Sports

U of L researchers have a possible breakthrough therapy for autism

Updated:

By Lori Lyle
WAVE 3 Health and Medical Reporter

LOUISVILLE (WAVE) -- A common treatment for depression may be a breakthrough therapy for autism. At the University of Louisville, a research team is testing brain stimulation on a small group of autistic patients and as health and medical reporter Lori Lyle explains, the patients cannot get enough.

This is research we were first to report in 2005 when Manuel Casanova, a neuroscientist at U of L, first discovered differences in the brains of those with autism.

We told you then the findings could lead to therapy. Now, the therapy is being tested and Casanova says many patients don't want the study to end.
Instead, the results are so promising, the study is about to expand.

"I guess I can't really do everything a normal person does. Get frustrated. Maybe being at home since I'm 29 years old. Still living with my parents, not independent," said Bart Coulter, an autism study patient.

Nevertheless, Bart is extremely determined. He wants to live as normal a life as possible despite a diagnosis of Asperger's, a milder variant of autism.

"I gotta get on my own sometime," says Bart.

Research at the University of Louisville may help Bart and others reach their goals by using a therapy called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation or TMS.

The therapy is just 20 minutes, twice a week for five weeks. It measures brain waves throughout, comparing before and afters and with the brain waves of control patients -- those without autism.

"What those wave forms actually show that the brain starts working together better in patients after treatment," says Manuel Casanova, a U of L neuroscientist. 

Casanova is leading the research after his previous studies show tiny brain strands called mini columns are smaller, more numerous and missing a sort of protective surround in people with autism.

"Information no longer kept within the mini column per se," says Casanova.  "Causing almost like an amplification."
  
So ironically, the stimulation may provide inhibition barriers around the mini-columns to prevent signal overload. The study has had ten patients so far.

It was primarily in terms of repetitive behaviors - self-injurious behaviors, tantrums. All of them were reduced," Casanova said.
 
Those behaviors are some of the most distressing symptoms of autism.

Casanova says, "Not only do they calm down, but now they are able to participate and socialize."

"We did see some changes. Overall, we saw some changes regarding his response. We noticed an increase in the speed and the time of responses," says Karen Coulter, Bart's sister-in-law. 

It is too soon to say if it will ever get Bart his independence, but with determination comes great potential.

"I'm excited for Louisville. This actually shows we are not following other individuals -- we are setting the pace," said Casanova.   
 
Casanova says TMS did not appear to impact any areas of giftedness in the test group. Over time, the treatments are needed less often when it is used for depression. Casanova says TMS could work similarly for autism.

The next part of the study will include up to 60 patients. For more information, call 502-852-4589.

Online Reporter:  Lori Lyle

Online Producer: Charles Gazaway