Hyperbaric Autism Treatment Shows Possible Promise


To battle her son's autism, Kazuko Curtin did more than look into a treatment -- she started a clinic for it.

Twelve years ago, Curtin was told by doctors that her son had autism. In subsequent years, while attending conferences, she heard about treatment in a hyperbaric chamber, where pressure is increased in an attempt to boost the amount of oxygen in the child's brain.

Curtin bought a machine, and today a hyperbaric chamber is one of the treatments offered by the CARE Clinics in Austin, Texas, and Tampa, Fla., which she opened last year.

"Hyperbaric is very useful," said Curtin. "You never think autistic children are going to stay inside the hyperbaric for 90 minutes, because they are very restless. What's amazing -- they like it! For some reason, they are very calm inside."

Curtin is the not the first to use hyperbaric therapy, a procedure with little scientific backing for the treatment of autism. But a new, small study of 56 children treated at several small clinics may change that if the findings can be replicated.

"We wanted to do a formal study that looked to see if this was even a valid treatment," said Dr. Daniel A. Rossignol of the International Child Development Resource Center in Melbourne, Fla., and the study's lead author. "We hoped to stimulate more research."

Several experts contacted by ABC News for this story refused to speak on the record about hyperbaric therapy. And others who did speak on the record harbored some skepticism.

"I am concerned that the data don't support the authors' conclusions," said Dr. Max Wiznitzer, a pediatric neurologist at the Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland.

Still, perhaps because the therapy, while still unproved as a remedy, does not appear to physically harm a child, this study may draw less controversy than many autism studies have in the past.

Rossignol and the study's other physicians offer therapy in a hyperbaric chamber in their own practices -- a potential conflict of interest that they noted in their paper. They said that this means that results will need to be replicated before the therapy can be recommended.

"Obviously, we need other people who've studied this as well," he said.

The Search for a Cure

Rossignol said he was first introduced to the therapy when his wife wished to use it in an attempt to treat their own two children, who have autism.

For the study, researchers looked at 56 children ages 2 to 7 who had varying degrees of autism. Each received 40 treatments of an hour each.

Thirty of the children had the pressure in the chamber increased by 30 percent, while the 26 children in the control group had the pressure increased by 3 percent.

In the end, researchers reported that 30 percent of the children who received the treatment reported greatly increased functioning, while 8 percent in the control group did.

Despite an influx of research dollars in recent years, autism research has yet to yield either the cause of autism or a cure. And the lengthy path from finding a cause to using that information on a cure has left many parents frustrated.

That, in turn, has led to the use of a number of therapies considered risky, including chelation, the removal of heavy metals from the body.

But while its positive effects remain unclear, hyperbaric chamber therapy does not present the dangers that other therapies do.

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