Autism Research Frequently Asked Questions
- We do not offer TMS as a treatment for autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
- There is still a great need for more research before offering TMS as a treatment for autism.
- We have not done any TMS studies that were aimed at testing or developing a treatment for ASD at the Berenson-Allen Center.
- Our current studies using TMS in ASD aim to learn more about how the brain functions in autistic individuals. This information could help guide future research that focuses on treating symptoms.
If you would like to search for current clinical trials for ASD, you can go to ClinicalTrials.gov.
- We are recruiting individuals diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) for a research study supported by the National Institutes of Health.
- We are using a form of brain stimulation called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to investigate brain plasticity, or the brain’s ability to change and learn through experience.
- In a previous study, we found that the brain plasticity was different in people with autism compared to those without autism.
- The goal of this study is to expand our prior results by examining a larger number of people with autism across the spectrum, including children and individuals that are low functioning.
- We hope to see if this difference in brain plasticity could be useful to help with the diagnosis of autism and help us to better understand how the brain works in autistic individuals. This information could help guide future research to treat symptoms of autism.
- This study does not involve any treatment for autism, and we do not expect our participants to derive any direct benefit from their participation.
While this study may in the future have implications for the treatment of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), our goal is to advance the understanding of how the brain works in individuals with ASD. We plan to study this first, in the hopes that our findings may in the future help to develop, guide and measure therapeutic interventions.
When a single session of TMS is applied to the brain, researchers can measure the response to the stimulation. This information can be used to make predictions about how the brain functions. In this way, TMS can be used to study the brain, but it is not intended to be a therapy.
When TMS is used to treat a medical condition, such as depression, the TMS is applied to the same brain area several days in a row. For example, TMS is applied for approximately 30 minutes to a very specific brain region every day for up to 6 weeks in the treatment of depression. It takes multiple stimulation sessions for a patient to notice lasting improvement in symptoms.
The research that we have done and are currently doing involves single stimulation sessions to a brain area. We are testing short term reactions of the brain. For example, in our studies that measure plasticity using TMS we do the following:
- The brain area under study is probed by the TMS using single, brief stimulations that we call “pulses” to show us the brain’s responsiveness
- We then use TMS to do several pulses very quickly and close together to that same brain area. This is called repetitive TMS (rTMS).
- We then re-test the same brain area after the rTMS by probing the brain again with single, brief pulses of TMS.
- We compare the single, brief pulses that were collected before and after rTMS.
- This shows us how the brain reacted to the rTMS and how long that effect lasts.
For many years we have been conducting studies examining the function and organization of the brain in individuals diagnosed with ASD. Our past and current studies are:
- Not clinical trials
- Not aimed at providing treatment
- Not aimed changing a person with autism’s social functioning
The experience that the author describes in his book was unique to him and what he describes in his writing was not a goal of the studies that he participated in.
In all of our past and current studies, we are using TMS as a tool to learn more about the brain, not as a treatment.
One of the past studies explored if using TMS could affect language in people with autism. The idea of this study was to use TMS to temporarily affect parts of the brain responsible for language. People’s language ability was tested with a brief language task before and after one-time stimulation sessions of TMS. We found:
- When one specific area was stimulated in people with autism, they improved on the language test.
- When another area was stimulated in people with autism, they did worse on the language test.
- This did not happen in people who do not have autism.
- The changes noted were not lasting.
Another past study was very similar to the current study that we are running. That study explored plasticity measures in adults with autism who were high functioning and in people without autism. The goal of the study was to see if there was a way to use TMS to understand the differences in the brains of people with autism and in people without autism. Our current study builds on this study.
- In this study, we found that the brain plasticity was different in people with autism compared to those without autism. This means that we found that people with autism’s brains reacted to a one-time, rTMS session differently than people without autism.
- There is not enough evidence to confidently put together a clinical trial based on the information learned from one individual’s experience.
- While it is important to consider the experiences of individuals, it is also important to realize that each individual can respond differently to TMS. For example, age can affect the way that the brain responds to TMS, meaning children may react completely differently than adults.
- We first need to study and understand how the brains of individuals with autism respond to TMS before offering TMS as a generalized therapy. This is the reasoning behind the ongoing research that we are currently conducting. Although this research does not offer any therapeutic benefit to our participants, the information gained is a critical first step to assist with designing future studies.