Autism and the Neurological Response
Part Two of Three in a Series on Children and Autism
By Jared M. Skowron, ND
As explained in part one of this series, autism currently is a world epidemic, with approximately one in 100 children affected. The most successful treatments are naturopathic, focused on treating the cause and acknowledging every part of the body.In this second of three articles on autism, we will continue looking at the pathophysiology, connections and treatments for the nervous and the gastrointestinal systems.
Theory of Increased Action Potentials
The hypothalamus, the regulator of neurotransmitters, will produce certain chemicals under certain homeostatic circumstances. Constant stress on the brain from toxic heavy metals,6 chemicals, viruses or immune aggravators will establish a chronic state of neurotransmitter imbalance. This shift of neurotransmitters will shift electrostatic balance on neurons, increasing their action potentials.
A neuron action potential is electrically just that: a "potential for action." The higher the charge on the neuron, the more easily a signal will be sent. The lower the charge on the neuron, the more stimulus it will take to fire a neuron. Children with autism have an extremely high action potential; it takes very little stimulus to fire a nerve. Therefore, within a certain period of time, their nerves fire much more often than a person off the spectrum.
We see this symptomatically with almost all symptoms of autism, most of all with hypersensitivities. Tantrums from light touch - from tags on the back of the shirt, socks or a hair brush - can be very overstimulating. Noises, normal to you or me, can be overbearing. Strange tastes or textures on the lips, the part of the body most innervated by nerves, sends too many signals to the brain, overloading it, and leading children to eat only certain foods comfortable to them. This also pertains to eye contact. Looking at someone's eyes sends much more information to the brain than looking at their arm or torso, body parts with less information. A stimulus or sense sending one signal to our brain might send hundreds or thousands of signals to the brain of a child with autism.
This rapidly firing brain also leads to other common symptoms of autism. A brain that fires often will get caught in certain neural patterns, repeating the same "Dora" or "Spongebob" phrase, for example. Children get fixated on a certain object, phrase or television show for a week because the neural pattern is stuck in that area of the brain. A brain that cannot calm down will have insomnia or restless sleep. A brain stuck in one area will not want to stop and branch to other parts of the brain, including learning, which takes repetition. Children who have an extraordinary talent or knowledge are repeating that area of the brain day and night. Repetition is the mother of learning, and if the brain does not spend time in certain areas, including speech, toilet training and sociability, those behaviors will not be learned.
An action potential is determined by the electrical charge created by neurotransmitters. Certain chemicals, excitatory neurotransmitters or EPSPs, will increase the action potential, encouraging the nerve to fire with less stimulus. Other chemicals, inhibitory neurotransmitters or IPSPs, will decrease the action potential, discouraging the nerve to fire. Neurochemistry still is a novice field and while we have identified certain neurotransmitters, there is a wealth of knowledge still to be discovered, including neurons releasing their own neurotransmitters away from synapses, neuron coupling and brain wave function.1
We can utilize the neurotransmitter knowledge we currently possess. Excitatory neurotransmitters such as dopamine, PEA and glutamate are increased in the nervous systems of those with autism.5 Inhibitory neurotransmitters such as serotonin, GABA and taurine are decreased or ineffective. New research is beginning concerning the neurotransmitter activity of sex hormones. There is the obvious link of a predominantly male condition with altered levels of testosterone,3 that not only inhibit the detoxification of mercury and other heavy metals, but also might have a potential effect of altering brain chemistry.
This imbalance creates a chronic neuron charge where nerves fire easily and often. Improving a child's and family's quality of life involves altering this chemistry to improve symptoms and also detoxifying the metals, chemicals or viruses causing the disturbance. This imbalance can temporarily be improved by giving the body the nutritional components that create inhibitory neurotransmitters and decrease action potentials. As I tell parents, "If you have peanut butter and bread, you can only make peanut butter sandwiches."
Important supplementation includes tryptophan or 5-hydroxy-tryptophan and zinc7, which will form serotonin. The serotonin and zinc will later form melatonin. Theanine will form GABA.4 Along with magnesium,2 (I prefer glycinate) and taurine, these synergistically will decrease action potentials on the neurons. Mineral screens should always be run. Watching for an increased copper:zinc ratio will indicate a need for both zinc supplementation and molybdenum supplementation, which chelates copper out of the body. Lithium levels always should be checked, especially in children with a tendency toward hyperactivity and violence.
The majority of studies performed in this area have been drug trials; however, information can be gleaned through their physiology. Risperidone, a dopamine blocker and serotonin agonist, has improved irritability, aggression, hyperactivity and stereotypy.8 Discontinuing risperidone results in a relapse in children with autism spectrum disorders.9 SSRIs have been shown to effect significant improvement in global functioning and in symptoms associated with anxiety and repetitive behaviors,10 as well as a reduction in hypersexual behaviors11 (along with a healthy dose of hyoscyamus). Reduction of central nervous system serotonin, induced by acute tryptophan depletion, causes a worsening of stereotyped behavior.12 On the opposite side of the neuron, metabolic turnover of dopamine in the central nervous system improves symptoms.13 However, despite these studies, there continues to be questions about the tolerability and appropriate dosing of SSRIs in children with autism.14
Decreasing action potentials almost always improves symptoms. A clinical study is being run out of my office with a combined powder of these supplements. One child with insomnia who would wake every hour was having nine hours of consistent sleep after one week. Another child with hypersensitivities could never go to the beach; the sand was too overstimulating for him. He would wear socks on the sand for about five minutes before breaking into a tantrum that sent the family home. This family, living three blocks from the beach, could not enjoy its favorite summer activity. After three weeks into the clinical trial, the family went to the beach and the child ripped off his socks, and then spent the entire day running in the sand and playing in the ocean for the first time in his life.
New research shows this neuro-transmitter imbalance and constant hyperfocus on certain activities or items restructures the brain, causing a reduction in the connectivity between specialized local neural networks in the brain and possible overconnectivity within the isolated individual neural assemblies.16 The amygdala and lateral nucleus undergo abnormal postnatal development, which includes a reduced number of neurons.15 Larger right amygdalar volume at 3 and 4 years of age, but not left amygdalar, hippocampal or total cerebral volume, is associated with a more severe clinical course and worse outcome at 6 years of age.17 The corpus callosum, or connectivity of the two halves of the brain, also is disproportionately small with significant reductions in the splenium and genu.18,19
Each child with autism is unique. In the future, we will see more research into brain remodeling, neurotransmitters and glia communication. As naturopaths, our testing and individualized treatments set us far and above conventional treatments for autism. (Specific testing protocols were outlined in part one of this article.)
Balancing the nervous system includes decreasing action potentials by giving the nutrients the hypothalamus uses to create inhibitory neurotransmitters. I also find homeopathic organotherapy effective with Corpus callosum 4C and Hypothalamus 9C.
Autism is completely treatable, and you will be amazed at how children can awaken and mainstream. The final article in this series will explore the adaptations of the young gastrointestinal system in autism.
About the Author: Jared M. Skowron, ND, is in private practice in Hamden, Conn., where he specializes in pediatrics and successfully treating children on the spectrum. A graduate of NCNM, he is the senior naturopathic physician with Metabolic Maintenance and has formulated a vitamin/mineral/amino supplement therapy for autism, currently undergoing clinical trials. Dr. Skowron also is an adjunct professor at the University of Bridgeport, teaching pediatrics, CPD and EENT.
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Date Last Modified - Friday, 17-Oct-2008 12:10:49 PDT