Showing posts with label ECT. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ECT. Show all posts

Monday 10 May 2021

Self-Injurious Behavior (SIB) in Autism– if all else fails, why not ECT?


I did mention Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) in a recent post as a therapy for Self-Injurious Behavior (SIB) in autism and since there has been a review paper published very recently, it is the topic of today’s post.

There was a previous post on this subject:-

Electro Convulsive Therapy (ECT) and Cannabidiol (CBD) in Autism

By coincidence, Mr Electric, Elon Musk, has just revealed that he has Asperger's Syndrome. I don't think he will be fitting ECT to his Tesla vehicles anytime soon.  ECT is likely only going to be used by those at the other extreme end of the autism spectrum, the ones who do not know was money is, let alone cryptocurrencies.

There are many possible ways to treat someone who self-injures or indeed is aggressive towards others. From a psychiatric unit you might get various psychiatric drugs (antipsychotics etc), protective and restraining devices and in some cases Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT).

Some literature on ECT suggests that it is effective in almost all cases of SIB.

This blog is mainly about novel personalized medicine and in the case of SIB there are multiple choices, which may, or may not be effective in any one case. In my son’s case the SIB was driven by an ion channel dysfunction which is fully treatable with a cheap little yellow pill, Verapamil.


Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)

ECT is a psychiatric treatment where seizures in the brain are electrically induced in patients to provide relief from mental disorders.  There are no muscular convulsions.  ECT involves multiple administrations, typically given two or three times per week until the patient is no longer suffering symptoms. ECT is administered under anesthesia with a muscle relaxant.

ECT is often used with informed consent as an intervention for major depressive disorder, mania, and catatonia.

Unfortunately, in autism, maintenance ECT therapy is required.  It is a treatment, not a cure.

The study below refers to catatonia, which you may not be familiar with.

Catatonia is a group of symptoms that usually involve a lack of movement and communication, and also can include agitation, confusion, and restlessness. Until recently, it was thought of as a type of schizophrenia.




Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) for Autism Spectrum Disorder Associated with Catatonia and Self-Injury: A Clinical Review 



We reviewed published clinical reports that evaluated treatment effects of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) with children, adolescents, and adults who had autism spectrum disorder (ASD), catatonia, and self-injury.


Published reports were identified from an internet search and summarized according to seven review criteria: (a) participant description, (b) clinical presentation, (c) previous treatments, (d) course of ECT, (e) treatment outcome, (f) side effects, and (g) evaluation methodology.


ECT was associated with clinical improvement in all participants. Most notable benefits included decreased self-injury, acquisition or recovery of functional life skills, elimination of catatonic symptoms, and return to baseline functioning. Maintenance ECT was typically required to sustain improved clinical status in the months and years following acute ECT.


There appears to be sufficient evidence that supports therapeutic benefits from ECT in persons with ASD, catatonia, and self-injury. However, measurement methods and evaluation design vary greatly among reports, there may be a publication bias towards cases with positive findings, and more rigorous clinical research is necessary particularly concerning optimization of maintenance ECT to maximize benefit and monitor for any adverse response.


The reports and summarized results are presented in Table 1. Among the participants (N=14), 28.5% were female and 71.4% were male ranging in age from 8 to 33 years old. From this sample, 35.7% were children, 28.5% were adolescents, and 35.7% were adults. Beyond the primary diagnoses of ASD and catatonia, the participants had comorbid conditions of intellectual disability, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, Tourette’s disorder, Addison’s disease, and neuroleptic malignant syndrome. The clinical presentation of participants at the time of referral for ECT was uniformly debilitating. Many participants refused to feed themselves, were significantly underweight and malnourished, and required nasogastric or gastrostomy tube feeling. Their general level of adaptive functioning was typically compromised, described as “needing assistance with feeding, getting dressed, brushing his teeth, and combing his hair”, displaying “significant mood instability characterized by irritability, tantrumming, alternating laughing and crying episodes as well as intermittent insomnia and anorexia”, and exhibiting “spontaneous episodes of punching, kicking, and biting, often requiring her to be restrained by several adults”. Self-injury was severe and long-standing, for example, a child, adolescent, and adult who had a “five year history of self-injury” that “included slapping and punching his head as well as banging his head or his knees and shoulders”, performed “hand-to-head, knee-to-head, and hand-to-body self-injury”, and “struck knees against his head, hit his head against a fixed surface or object, punched his face and head with hands, pressed fingers against his eyes, and bit any part of his body”. The seriousness of cases was reflected in participants who required inpatient hospitalization and were no longer able to attend school, live at home, or participate in the community. Use of protective equipment such as hard and soft helmets, padded gloves, arm and body guards, and rigid arm restraints restricting flexion at the elbow was uniform across reports.

Access to ECT in the USA varies greatly among states based on the presence or absence of procedural restrictions, practice regulations, administrative requirements, and stipulations regarding consent. This variability from state-to-state impacts patient care and evaluation of effectiveness of ECT when procedures and protocols are not uniform and administered consistently.

Maintenance ECT in which the number of treatment sessions was gradually decreased during the hospital stay preceding and then following discharge was indicated in nearly all clinical reports. Haq and Ghaziuddin  wrote that “withdrawal of maintenance-ECT in patients with autism and catatonia often precipitates relapse of symptoms, perhaps more rapidly and predictably than in the treatment of mood disorders”. They advised that m-ECT be continued as long as clear evidence shows it benefits the patient. Similarly, Wachtel, Hermida, and Dhossche proposed that ECT should be considered a “treatment rather than a cure” and that patient relapse remains a concern even with m-ECT in place. Indeed, many of the reports we reviewed found that participants relapsed quickly when ECT was discontinued or treatment frequency reduced, requiring a readjusted m-ECT schedule and/or concomitant pharmacotherapy to confer therapeutic benefit, While our review demonstrates that there are presently no precise parameters and guidelines for administering m-ECT to persons with ASD, the demonstration that ECT regimens must be tailored to unique patient circumstances is in line with m-ECT paradigms among neurotypical individuals.




Self-injury and aggression in autism can become overwhelming and, one way or another, have to be treated.  Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) clearly is one option that may be available, depending on where you live.

If you stop the maintenance therapy, the behaviors will return.  Ideally you live near the hospital. 

In terms of what it is actually doing, I think we can compare it to an old computer whose screen keeps freezing, you just restart it and hope for the best.  Then you know it is time to look around for a new computer, before you lose whatever is on the hard drive.  ECT is like a system reset, without knowing what the underlying problem is. 

In the absence of an effective alternative, why not ECT?

Is there a pharmacological "reset button" for at least some aspects of some autism? A short course of steroids does something along these lines; you can even have a single dose, as in therapy for an asthma attack/exacerbation.  Suramin is not really a monthly "reset", because the drug has a very long half-life and so it is there all month long, just at a slowly reducing level.  

Friday 21 July 2017

Electro Convulsive Therapy (ECT) and Cannabidiol (CBD) in Autism

Today’s post is another one to fill in some of the gaps in this blog.
Psychiatrists have long been using electric shocks, of one kind or the other, to treat their patients. There is even a special school in the US (the Judge Rotenberg Center) where they used electric shocks as aversive therapy, until very recently.  

Cannabis, in the form of Cannabidiol (CBD), is currently the subject of an autism trial in Israel, home to some very innovative people.

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT)

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), formerly known as electroshock therapy, and often referred to as shock treatment, is a psychiatric treatment in which seizures are electrically induced in patients to provide relief from mental disorders. The ECT procedure was first conducted in 1938 is often used as a last line of intervention for major depressive disorder, mania, and catatonia.
As of 2001, it was estimated that about one million people received ECT annually.
Several hundred people with autism have been treated with ECT in the US. 

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)
Do not confuse ECT with Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS).
Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is a magnetic method used to stimulate small regions of the brain. During a TMS procedure, a magnetic field generator is placed near the head of the person receiving the treatment. The coil produces small electric currents in the region of the brain just under the coil via electromagnetic induction. This is rather similar to the way the base station of a rechargeable electric toothbrush works.
A big fan of TMS is Manuel Casanova, a neurologist and Autism blogger. 

A while back I watched a BBC documentary following an autistic girl adopted from a Serbian orphanage by a US family. All was going well until she later developed a serious problem with aggression and self-injury that was being treated by monthly visits to the hospital for electroconvulsive therapy.  The shocks did indeed seem to do the trick and suppress her aggressive tendencies. She is an example of what I call double tap autism, where an autistic person later suffers a profound setback for some reason. 


My Child, ECT (electric shock) and Me (click the picture below)

Long article from Spectrum News:- 

What I found interesting was that you could see that when you took away the SIB, the girl was pretty high functioning. She could read, write and do math.

This made me recall a previous idea of mine that you might grade people’s autism in terms of both their good days and their bad days.  So on a scale of 100, this girl might have been 30/100.  On a bad day she was a major danger to herself and those around her and so she scored 100, but on a good day she was able to be part of the family and be educated.  She clearly had autism but not such a severe kind, so she might score a 30.
The point missed by the BBC was that in this example, electric shock therapy was not an autism therapy, it was an SIB therapy and it appears to have been a pretty effective one.
Many people with autism do not have flare-ups, they do not have SIB; they are pretty constant in their behavior, so they might be a constant 30/30.  


Much is written on the internet about the use of cannabis for all kinds of conditions, the ones relevant to this blog are autism and epilepsy.  There is a study currently underway in Israel where they are using CBD oil, the non psychoactive part of cannabis, as an autism therapy.
As you might expect they had no difficulty recruiting people to participate in the study, which is still ongoing. 

Dr. Aran is the Director of the Neuro-pediatric unit in Shaare Zedek Medical Center and his latest research involves treating the symptoms of autism using medical marijuana. “So far,” Aran tells NoCamels, “our impression is that it’s working.”

The clinical study began in January 2017 in Jerusalem at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center. There are 120 participants, including children and young adults, diagnosed with various degrees of ASD ranging from mild to severe. Dr. Aran hopes to have final results by December 2017.

According to Dr. Aran, “there are theories” for why medical cannabis can alleviate symptoms of autism, “but we don’t know exactly how. There are theories and models but we don’t know. It can’t be explained.”

This is worrisome given that cannabis is being given to children with little knowledge of why or how it may help. Of course, “We are worried with children because of the long-term impact. But it is considered mostly safe and we have already tested it with epilepsy.” Other studies, like the one published in Seizure: European Journal of Epilepsy 2016, conducted in Israel, successfully demonstrated that cannabis reduced the number of seizures of children with epilepsy. Nonetheless, Aran admits that “There are always worries that something will happen that we don’t know about.”

It is key to note that the participants are receiving cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive compound, as opposed to the more commonly known tetrahyrdrocannabinol (THC), which creates the “high” feeling. Therefore, the benefits they seem gain from the treatment “help the children cooperate more,” reduce behavioral problems, and “improve their functioning.”

While the study offers much hope for the children and families affected by ASD, Aran warns that “It won’t cure the symptoms, that’s for sure. It will never cure autism. But it certainly can help the quality of life of the families.” 

The lead researcher recently made some revealing comments, he suggested that the results so far are very positive and that it seems that the quality of life has been improved but it does not cure the symptoms. That made be draw the connection to the adopted child in the US; the therapy does indeed seem to be helpful because it is treating the “100” in the 30/100. So it may not improve cognition or reduce stereotypy, but it makes life better, just like the girl receiving the electric shocks.  Hopefully when they publish the results Dr Aran will be much more precise as to the effect of his therapy, since perhaps I am inferring too much from his comments. 

Why does any of this matter?

Well if you want to solve a problem, you have to define it and the more precisely you can define it, the more likely you are to find a solution.
If you have a girl who is a stable 30/30 with no SIB and no epilepsy, it might well be shown that neither electric shocks nor CBD oil will help here.
If you have a girl who is 30/100 with SIB and epilepsy it might well be the case that both electric shocks and CBD oil might help here; but it appears that neither will improve her core autism (which is the 30).

Mode of Action

Neither the doctors using electric shocks nor CBD oil claim to fully understand the mode of action. There are of course various plausible theories.
In the case of CBD it is an antagonist of GPR55, a G protein-coupled receptor and putative cannabinoid receptor that is expressed in the caudate nucleus and putamen in the brain. It has also been shown to act as a 5-HT1A receptor partial agonist, and this action may be involved in the antidepressant, anxiolytic, and neuroprotective effects of cannabidiol. It is an allosteric modulator of the μ- and δ-opioid receptors as well.  Cannabidiol's pharmacological effects have additionally been attributed to PPARγ agonism and intracellular calcium release.


Do the therapies “work”?

What we have seen in this blog to date is that there are very many things that do seem to help specific people.  It is sometimes hard to figure out for sure the mode of action; but if high doses of biotin, or vitamin B6, or anything else consistently improve someone’s condition over years of use you have to take note.
The electric shocks did indeed seem to successfully control SIB for 3-4 weeks.  Maybe someone clever might figure out the biological cause triggering her SIB and so provide an alternative  drug therapy, but for now it seems she will go once a month for more shocks.
There are people who think long term use of CBD oil will have negative effects and I guess monthly electric shocks may also have some unforeseen consequences.
The Israeli researchers seem pretty keen on pursuing CBD oil and so they may well end up with a large enough clinical trial to make people take notice.
I do not see hundreds of parents signing up to a clinical trial of electric shock therapy, so it looks likely to be a niche therapy used by one or two clinicians.
CBD oil is the sort of therapy that will appeal to many parents and it is being trialed on so many different people we will soon know if there are harmful long term effects.

My Take

It looks to me that electroconvulsive therapy is rather crude and while it does evidently help some people, it might not be without serious risk. If the person has uncontrollable SIB, it looks a risk worth taking.
Short term use of CBD oil looks a safer bet, but if the effect required is just calming/sedating there may be other ways to achieve this.  Many parents are already using CBD oil as a home autism therapy.
There are hundreds of clinical trials completed, or in progress, using CBD to treat everything from ulcerative colitis to anxiety. It is being trialed in schizophrenia and even Dravet Syndrome and other kinds of epilepsy.  There is even a trial of a CBD chewing gum to treat Irritable Bowel Syndrome. CBD actually now has designated orphan drug status with the FDA for Dravet Syndrome.
I have no plans to use either therapy; I seem to have addressed the variable nature of my case of autism.  I am more interested in treating the core autism symptoms, the “30” in the 30/100; it is clear that much more remains possible.  

Tackling the “30”

An interesting recent finding came from a study on Oxytocin at Stanford. This time researchers had the good sense to actually measure the level of the oxytocin hormone in the blood of the trial participants before and after they started having oxytocin squirted up their noses. 

Not surprisingly it was people with low natural levels of oxytocin who were the favorable responders and interestingly those in the placebo group who also responded actually increased their natural level of oxytocin production.
As we know there are other ways to increase you level of oxytocin, one of which is via certain L. reuteri probiotic bacteria.
Oxytocin would fit in the tackling the “30” category, for those with naturally lower levels of this hormone.
The Stanford researcher is again Dr Hardan, from that interesting phase 2 trial of the antioxidant NAC.  He is now planning a larger oxytocin trial. Has he forgotten about making a phase 3 trial of NAC?   

Self Injurious Behavior (SIB)

You do wonder why some clinician does not compile a list of all the known causes and therapies for self-injurious behavior (SIB) in autism.  There is even a study planned at Emory University to test the efficacy of NAC to treat SIB, but with only 14 participants, I do not really see the point.
We do know that a small number of people with SIB respond well to NAC. If just 10% are responders, you would need a really large trial prove anything at all. With 14 participants you should have just one, but as luck might have it, it could be none.
With a more scientific/engineering approach you might identify five sometimes effective SIB therapies, and then go systematically through testing each therapy on each person with SIB. Then you would have some useful data.    
As I mentioned in a recent comment, the late Bernie Rimland from ARI, was a big believer in high dose vitamin B6 to treat SIB.  For some people it is a nicotine patch, for my son in summer it is an L-type calcium channel blocker.
The reality is that numerous complex dysfunctions can lead to SIB, but so do some simple things like untreated pain and inflammation, which could be from IBS/IBD or even tooth eruption/shedding or just tooth decay.