Written by Emily Braff, B.A., BCaBA
Recently, hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) has become popular as a possible alternative treatment for individuals with autism. The use of this treatment has increased rapidly but there is still a great deal of controversy over its effectiveness. This blog will discuss the therapy and the evidence behind it. This will not indicate whether or not the treatment is effective for treating autism but will instead give you an idea of whether the research thus far supports its use and how much research, in fact, exists.
Why Would HBOT Work?
A hyperbaric chamber is a pressurized container filled with concentrated oxygen. It is traditionally used to treat scuba divers with the “bends”, which occurs when they surface too quickly. There is evidence to suggest that HBOT can be helpful in treating certain illnesses and healing wounds because the increased oxygen flow can speed the development of certain kinds of blood vessels.
The theory behind using HBOT for autism treatment is that it may oxygenate and reduce inflammation in the brain. At this point, the cause of autism has not been discovered so the idea that inflammation and a lack of oxygen in the brain may be at least partially responsible for some symptoms has not been confirmed. Some studies note that this treatment would affect certain brain abnormalities which are found in only a certain subset of individuals with autism. Therefore, it may be worthwhile to determine if an individual has these abnormalities before beginning treatment. More detailed information on these abnormalities may be found in the introduction of this study: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3472266/
Research on HBOT and Autism
HBOT is still a relatively new potential treatment for autism. The research that has been conducted has had conflicting results. At this point, very few studies are available to the public in published, peer-reviewed journals. Of those which are available, many are case studies (only one participant) or involved a small number of participants. A website called hyperbariclink.com keeps track of studies and clinical trials which evaluate HBOT as an autism treatment and is a good resource for tracking news related to this topic. The site lists 7 available studies published in journals and 8 clinical trials in various stages of completion, with links to access information on these. Additionally, reviews of studies and articles related to HBOT and autism are available. (Disclaimer: the site does seem to take a skeptical attitude toward HBOT as an autism therapy, but it is still a valuable resource if you are interested in accessing research on this topic and being alerted when new information is available.) For example, two systematic reviews of the HBOT and autism research up to this point were published recently. One concluded that the evidence that has been found so far is weak, and further study is needed as positive results have not been replicated. The other observed that many of the inconsistencies in the research to date may be due to errors in the design of the study or method of measurement. This article pointed to studies which show HBOT’s treatment effects on certain brain abnormalities tenuously associated with autism to support the idea that further research is warranted.
Despite the relative lack of supporting research, HBOT is still an increasingly popular alternative treatment for autism. The amount of research it will take to confirm or disprove this as an evidence-based treatment will take many years to conduct. In the meantime, the best thing you can do is review the research that has been conducted and make your own informed decisions.
Have you tried HBOT as a treatment option for your child with autism? If so, please leave your comments on this intervention in the comment section below.