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TMS Breaking Ground in Managing Autism

According to the CDC 1 in 68 American children have Autism in some form.  Autism Spectrum Disorder has seen a 3,000 percent increase in diagnoses in the last 30 years. Autism is described as difficulties with social skills, restricted repetitive behaviors, and speech and nonverbal communication. The word “spectrum” is based on the wide differences in challenges and strengths in each person with autism. The cause of the many different types of autism may be because of different genetic combinations and environmental influences. According to Dr. Jeremy Veenstra-Vanderweele, on the latest episode from the HBO series Vice, “Autism Under the Lens”, another theory on the increase in autism is based on the fact that more kids are surviving neonatal intensive care units who would not have 20-30 years ago. But more importantly, standardized tests like ADOS, that sets a numeric threshold for an autism diagnosis, is a key reason for the rise in autism cases.

The TMS Autism Treatment Method

Harvard neurologist, Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone pioneered the TMS technique. He explains in “Autism Under the Lens” how TMS works for Autism, “TMS is a way to inject current in the brain without having to do surgery and open up the skull. A coil of wire outside the head generates a magnetic field, and that magnetic field reaches the brain unimpeded. It makes those cells that are targeted fire in a different way. It can either make them fire more or be suppressed for some period of time. And that allows us to figure out what causal role a given brain area has for a given behavior.”

As the magnetic field is placed on the person’s scalp, this activates the part of the brain that is used to study whether that part is functioning appropriately or not.

It is also used as an intervention to down regulate the activity in that area of the brain, or up regulate it. Then, they modulate the functioning of that area that may be dysfunctional.

In people with autism, an over activity or over responsiveness is seen in certain parts of the brain. The magnetic field is used to down regulate the over excitability that might be leading to some of the behavioral difficulties and treat the underlying cause of the behaviors, rather than just treat the symptoms.

Magnetic Stimulation Plus Behavioral Intervention for Improved Effectiveness

According to the Autism Speaks blog, neuroscientist Lindsay Oberman says that TMS can be paired up with a behavioral intervention.

After receiving TMS therapy, the brain is then primed so that it can be more responsive toward a behavioral intervention.

Some studies are being done to see if the combination of TMS and behavioral intervention might improve the effectiveness of the treatment.

Back to the “Autism Under the Lens” episode, one of Dr. Pascual-Leone’s first participants, John Robison, was being interviewed. He explains his first TMS experience as “life changing”. He describes the music he was listening to on his way home as overwhelming because the radio was so clear. He felt like he was at the concert, live with the band. After his TMS therapy, Robison was able to gain a “cognitive perspective that has greatly broadened his ability to read and recognize emotions.”

John Robison is now a self-advocate for the autistic community. In addition, he runs an auto mechanic school for students with developmental disabilities. He thanks TMS for giving him the social skills needed to bring awareness to the community about neuro diversity.

The FDA clearance of TMS for the treatment of depression is a great guide that it can to be an astonishing treatment for people with autism. Clinical trials have already suggested that TMS can help relive autism symptoms like irritability and repetitive behaviors, along with improvements in eye-hand coordination and social skills.

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