In The Politics of Autism, I write:At NPR, Robin Marantz Henig writes about transcranial magnetic stimulation:
The conventional wisdom is that any kind of treatment is likely to be less effective as the child gets older, so parents of autistic children usually believe that they are working against the clock. They will not be satisfied with the ambiguities surrounding ABA, nor will they want to wait for some future research finding that might slightly increase its effectiveness. They want results now. Because there are no scientifically-validated drugs for the core symptoms of autism, they look outside the boundaries of mainstream medicine and FDA approval. Studies have found that anywhere from 28 to 54 percent of autistic children receive “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), and these numbers probably understate CAM usage.
Autism is a developmental disorder that can be disabling, and there's no cure. That makes families uniquely vulnerable to the potential of untested treatment. The fear is that TMS could turn out to be the latest in a long string of untested or off-label treatments for autism, from chelation therapy to hyperbaric oxygen chambers to gluten-free diets, that desperate parents have been spending money on for decades.
None of these treatments has proven beneficial in clinical trials, and some have actually caused harm. FDA officials worry that even if a treatment is relatively safe, it could still divert precious resources away from proven treatments, such as behavioral interventions and certain drugs.
Companies promoting untested approaches face "possible legal action if they continue to make false or misleading claims about products and therapies claiming to treat or cure autism," the FDA wrote in a consumer bulletin in 2014. "Some of these so-called therapies carry significant health risks."
It's easy to understand the enthusiasm for a treatment like TMS, which is non-invasive, non-pharmacological, and already has FDA clearance for one condition —severe depression that doesn't respond to other treatments. It has few known side effects, though it has been shown, in very rare cases, to cause seizures.
The treatment involves placing a relatively small and very powerful electromagnet on the scalp, and sending pulses of magnetic waves directly into the brain to activate or de-activate particular neurons. It has been used experimentally in autism, mostly in hopes of developing a better diagnostic tool. But as news percolates of this research application, more and more people want to try it for themselves or their children.
But for autism, the science of TMS treatment is, according to researcher Lindsay Oberman, "still in its infancy."
"I know it's easy to get overly optimistic given the media coverage and web posts about the remarkable responses some people with autism have reported after participating in a TMS study," Oberman, a research psychologist at Brown University and Bradley Hospital in Rhode Island, wrote last March in a blog post for the advocacy group Autism Speaks.
But those studies have been very few — just 13 in the medical literature to date — and they tend to focus on only a select group of subjects: adults, generally male, who are high-functioning and do not have epilepsy. It's risky, then, to generalize to how TMS would affect women or children with autism, or people with more severe symptoms.