NIH to fund UofL clinical trial of autism treatment


    LOUISVILLE, Ky. – A promising treatment of autism has earned National Institutes of Health funding for University of Louisville researchers. This award will fund a clinical trial that combines magnetic stimulation with behavior therapy in people with autism. Researchers believe this approach will ease major symptoms of autism, which in turn will help participants focus on therapy to improve social interactions.

    “This study, which builds on discoveries made here at UofL in the last five years, offers a new kind of hope for people with autism. It has the potential to change science’s way of thinking about autism treatment,” said Larry Cook, UofL executive vice president for health affairs.

    “We have focused on using our new understanding of brain function to treat autism, instead of using medications to remediate its consequences,” explained neuroscientist Manuel Casanova.

    The $900,000 NIH award will fund a four-year clinical trial.

    Casanova and a team of researchers previously mapped the way tiny strands of brain tissue called cortical cell minicolumns develop and connect. Their research suggests that minicolumn defects interfere with information processing because a lack of “sound-proofing” between minicolumns leads to sensory overload, which magnifies underlying social and communication deficits.

    A pilot study confirmed that people with autism have fewer tantrums and repetitive behaviors symptomatic of sensory overload after a low-frequency magnetic field is pulsed around their brains through a coil placed near the scalp. This process, known as repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), creates an electric current that enhances specific cells’ ability to protect the brain from sensory overload in one region of the brain.

    “Neurological and psychological test results and brain activity measurements tell us that TMS helps with the symptoms that people with autism find most distressing,” Casanova said. “We believe that relief will give them the opportunity to learn to be more social adept and emotionally responsive.”

    In this trial, patients will receive a higher frequency of magnetic stimulation and more than twice the number of sessions administered in the pilot study. This treatment will be paired for the first time with applied behavior analysis (ABA) to help participants learn and practice socially appropriate methods of relating to other people.

    This study also makes use of new understanding about the brain’s innate connectivity. The brain of a person with an autism spectrum disorder is structured to make short, local connections between minicolumns as it processes information. The TMS treatment focuses on cells in specific regions of the brain and then relies on the cells’ connectivity to communicate the change to other regions.

    “This connectivity allows us to train other regions of the autistic brain to manage the noise that causes sensory overload without sacrificing the talents that result from the natural brain structure,” Casanova said.

    The National Institutes of Health’s EUREKA (Exceptional, Unconventional Research Enabling Knowledge Acceleration) program funds researchers who are testing exceptionally novel, unconventional research that could yield an extremely high impact on research.

    Researchers are targeting children from the Louisville metropolitan area for this trial. Parents who want to inquire about the study should call 502-852-0404.