Hyperbaric Autism Treatment

Medical Hypotheses (2006) 67, 216–228

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy may improve symptoms in autistic children
Daniel A. Rossignol a,b,*, Lanier W. Rossignol
a Blue Ridge Medical Center, 4038 Thomas Nelson Highway, Arrington, VA 22922, USA b University of Virginia, P.O. Box 800729, Charlottesville, VA, USA
Received 26 January 2006; accepted 7 February 2006
Summary    Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that currently affects as many as 1 out of 166 children in the United States. Recent research has discovered that some autistic individuals have decreased cerebral perfusion, evidence of neuroinflammation, and increased markers of oxidative stress. Multiple independent single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) and positron emission tomography (PET) research studies have revealed hypoperfusion to several areas of the autistic brain, most notably the temporal regions and areas specifically related to language comprehension and auditory processing. Several studies show that diminished blood flow to these areas correlates with many of the clinical features associated with autism including repetitive, self-stimulatory and stereotypical behaviors, and impairments in communication, sensory perception, and social interaction. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) has been used with clinical success in several cerebral hypoperfusion syndromes including cerebral palsy, fetal alcohol syndrome, closed head injury, and stroke. HBOT can compensate for decreased blood flow by increasing the oxygen content of plasma and body tissues and can even normalize oxygen levels in ischemic tissue. In addition, animal studies have shown that HBOT has potent anti-inflammatory effects and reduces oxidative stress. Furthermore, recent evidence demonstrates that HBOT mobilizes stem cells from human bone marrow, which may aid recovery in neurodegenerative diseases. Based upon these findings, it is hypothesized that HBOT will improve symptoms in autistic individuals. A retrospective case series is presented that supports this hypothesis.
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Abbreviations: SPECT, single photon emission computed tomography; PET, positron emission tomography; HBOT, hyp- erbaric oxygen therapy; MRI, magnetic resonance imaging; ATA, atmosphere absolute; CP, cerebral palsy; SOD, superox- ide dismutase.
* Corresponding author. Tel.: +1 434 263 4000; fax: +1 434 263 4160.
E-mail addresses: (D.A. Rossignol), (L.W. Rossignol).
Overview of autism
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder currently affecting as many as 1 out of 166 children in the United States [1] that is characterized by impair- ments in social interaction, difficulty with commu- nication, and restrictive and repetitive behaviors [2]. It affects children from all socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds [3]. Autism was considered
0306-9877/$- see front matter ��c 2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. doi:10.1016/j.mehy.2006.02.009
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a rare condition before the 1990’s with a preva- lence of approximately 1 in 2500 children [4]. How- ever, according to the US Department of Developmental Services, the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders increased 556% from 1991 to 1997 [5]. Autism is now more common than child- hood cancer, cerebral palsy, Down’s syndrome, spina bifida, or cystic fibrosis [6,7]. In addition, autism is found throughout the globe and the prev- alence worldwide is increasing 3.8% per year [8]. Autism is an incompletely understood disorder [3,5], but new clinical research is beginning to un- ravel some of its mysteries.
Overview of hyperbaric oxygen therapy
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) involves inhal- ing 100% oxygen at greater than one atmosphere absolute (ATA) in a pressurized chamber [9]. HBOT has been used successfully in humans at varying pressures to treat a range of conditions. Many clin- ical applications of HBOT are at higher pressures (over 2.0 ATA) including treatment of decompres- sion sickness, arterial gas embolism, carbon mon- oxide poisoning [10], amyotrophic lateral sclerosis [11], and complex regional pain syndrome [12]. However, HBOT has also been used at lower pres- sures (1.5 ATA or less) with clinical success in con- ditions including fetal alcohol syndrome [13] and ischemic brain injury [14]. HBOT at 1.5 ATA was utilized in a prospective trial of 168 patients with closed head trauma with a significant reduction in mortality (32% versus 17%) [15].
HBOT has been shown to increase the oxygen content of plasma [16] and body tissues [17] and can even normalize oxygen levels in ischemic tissue [18]. In fact, the amount of oxygen delivered by HBOT at 3.0 ATA and 100% oxygen is able to keep tissue viable even without oxygen input from circu- lating hemoglobin [17]. In rat models, HBOT has been shown to reduce the effects of hypoxia and ischemia on the neonatal brain [19]. Human studies demonstrate that HBOT causes mild vasoconstric- tion resulting in decreased blood flow [20,21] but at the same time causes increased oxygen delivery and levels in target tissues [16,17,20]. By causing mild vasoconstriction, HBOT can reduce edema in ischemic tissue [22] including the brain [20,23], which results in lowering intracranial pressure [20].
HBOT is generally considered safe [17] at oxygen pressures below 3.0 ATA and with treatment dura- tions of less than 120 min [10,13,24]. The use of HBOT in children appears generally safe, even at pressures of 2.0 ATA for 2 hours per day for up to 40 sessions [25]. The most common side effect of HBOT is middle ear barotrauma, which occurs in
approximately 2% of patients. The incidence of such barotrauma is decreased with pseudoephed- rine treatment before HBOT. Less common side ef- fects in descending order include sinus squeeze, serous otitis, claustrophobia, and reversible myo- pia. Seizures may occur infrequently in about 0.01–0.03% of patients [9].
Multiple studies have revealed that autism is a neu- rodegenerative disease characterized by cerebral hypoperfusion, neuroinflammation, and increased oxidative stress. HBOT helps overcome hypoperfu- sion, has potent anti-inflammatory effects and re- duces oxidative stress. Furthermore, HBOT mobilizes stems cells from human bone marrow. Therefore, HBOT will improve symptoms of autism.
Improving cerebral hypoperfusion in autism
Evidence of decreased cerebral blood flow in autism and possible mechanisms of hypoperfusion
Even in the presence of normal magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) findings, focal areas of decreased cerebral blood flow occur in children with autism [26]. Multiple independent single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) and positron emis- sion tomography (PET) research studies have dem- onstrated hypoperfusion to several areas of the autistic brain, most notably the temporal lobes [26–39]. Several studies show that reduced blood flow to the temporal regions and other brain areas correlates with many of the clinical findings associ- ated with autism including repetitive, self-stimula- tory and stereotypical behaviors, and impairments in communication, sensory perception, and social interaction [27,29,31,39–42]. Furthermore, a cor- relation between decreased IQ and hypoperfusion of the temporal and frontal lobes has been de- scribed in autistics [36].
The cause of this decreased blood flow is not known but may be secondary to changes in cerebral arterial resistance. Under normal conditions, cere- bral blood flow increases when local brain tissue metabolic rate and functioning increases [43,44]. However, this response may be reversed in autistic children. One of the first studies measuring cere- bral blood flow in autistic children utilized trans- cranial Doppler ultrasound and showed decreased
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blood flow and concomitantly increased middle cerebral arterial resistance upon auditory stimula- tion. Conversely, control neurotypical and men- tally retarded children showed opposite results [45].
The mechanism of this abnormal change in cere- bral arterial resistance in autistic children is un- known. However, several studies have shown that astrocytes can regulate cerebral blood flow. Astro- cytes can directly cause arteriole vasoconstriction through a calcium mechanism [46] and arteriole vasodilatation through a cyclooxygenase medium [47]. Neurons, astrocytes, and vascular cells com- pose a functional unit that maintains proper blood flow and oxygenation for the brain [48]. Neural activity normally causes increased cerebral blood flow thus delivering increased oxygen [44]. How- ever, a recent study found evidence of neuroin- flammation and astroglial activation in autism [49]. It is possible that astroglial inflammation may affect the control of blood flow regulated by astrocytes and lead to the abnormal changes in cerebral artery resistance and hypoperfusion seen in some autistic children.
Furthermore, inflammation is a known cause of decreased blood flow and several inflammatory conditions have associated cerebral hypoperfusion including lupus [50,51], Sjo ̈gren’s syndrome [52], Behc ̧et’sdisease[53],viralencephalitis[54,55], and acute Kawasaki disease [40]. One SPECT study of 27 children with echovirus meningitis demon- strated decreased cerebral blood flow in 74% of the children [55] and two recent SPECT studies re- vealed impaired cerebral perfusion in 81% of pa- tients with Sjo ̈gren’s syndrome [52]. In one SPECT study of patients with systemic lupus erythemato- sus, 59% had evidence of cerebral hypoperfusion [51]. Furthermore, treatment of the inflammation found in lupus with iloprost [56] and methylpred- nisolone [57] normalized cerebral blood flow on follow-up SPECT scans. It is conceivable that the cerebral hypoperfusion found in autistic children may be triggered by neuroinflammation and there- fore may be reversible with anti-inflammatory modalities.
Zones of the autistic brain affected by decreased blood flow and symptom correlations
Cerebral hypoperfusion may play a role in some of the more unusual characteristics of autistic behav- ior. Diminished blood flow to the thalamus has been correlated with the autistic clinical features of repetitive, self-stimulatory, and unusual behav-
iors including resistance to changes in routine and environment [29]. Hypoperfusion of the temporal lobes has also been linked with increased autism symptom profile scores including ‘‘obsessive desire for sameness’’ and ‘‘impairments in communica- tion and social interaction’’ [31]. Another study on ‘‘high functioning’’ autistics demonstrated de- creased blood flow to areas of the temporal lobe and amygdala, which was correlated with clinical impairments in processing facial expressions and emotions [42]. This was confirmed by a recent study of autistics demonstrating diminished blood flow to the ‘‘fusiform face area’’ responsible for recognizing familiar faces [58].
In addition, decreased perfusion of the temporal lobes is a consistent finding in many studies of autistic children. Two larger controlled studies (21–23 autistic children) using SPECT and PET scans confirmed significant bitemporal hypoperfu- sion [31,34]. In both of these studies, the control group was mentally retarded; therefore, the hyp- operfusion could not be attributed to mental retar- dation alone [33,34]. Another SPECT study of 31 autistic children, 16 of whom had epilepsy, also demonstrated reduction of cerebral blood flow to the temporal lobes. Of note, cerebral blood flow was not different between those with and without epilepsy, suggesting that epilepsy itself was not associated with hypoperfusion in these individuals [37]. A more recent PET study of 11 autistic chil- dren revealed diminished blood flow to the left temporal area, including Wernicke’s area (which is involved in language comprehension) and Brod- mann’s area 21 (involved in auditory processing and language), when compared to age-matched mentally retarded children [39]. Interestingly, an association between temporal lobe abnormalities [59] and the subsequent development of secondary autism has been described in tuberous sclerosis [60], infantile spasms [61], herpes simplex enceph- alitis [62,63], and an acute encephalopathic illness in children [64].
The relative amount of cerebral hypoperfusion in autistic children can vary by age. In one study, hypoperfusion of the prefrontal and left temporal areas worsened and became ‘‘quite profound’’ as the age of the autistic child increased. This dimin- ished perfusion correlated with decreased lan- guage development. The authors concluded that hypoperfusion ‘‘subsequently prevents develop- ment of true verbal fluency and development in the temporal and frontal areas associated with speech and communication’’ [27].
Hypoperfusion of the temporal and other brain regions has been correlated with many of the clin- ical findings associated with autism including self-
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stimulatory behaviors and impairments in commu- nication, sensory perception, and social interaction [33,34]. This diminished blood flow may be medi- ated by neuroinflammation. Further studies on the effects of inflammation on blood flow in the autistic brain are needed, especially studies involv- ing the temporal lobes where hypoperfusion is common. Whatever the cause of the hypoperfu- sion, the possibility exists that the enhancement of oxygen delivery to the brain accomplished by HBOT may improve some of the symptoms found in autistic children.
The use of HBOT in cerebral hypoperfusion disorders
The oxygen delivered by HBOT can reverse hypoxia in brain tissues caused by hypoperfusion [65,66]. Cerebral hypoperfusion causes hypoxia, which trig- gers electrical failure in brain cells. Worsening hy- poxia then eventually results in ion pump failure, which ultimately leads to cell death [67]. Cells that have electrical failure but retain ion pump ability have been described as ‘‘idling’’ because they re- main alive but non-functional [68]. SPECT studies have confirmed the presence of these ‘‘idling cells,’’ which surround areas of focal ischemia and comprise what is termed the ‘‘ischemic pen- umbra’’ [69]. Restoration of oxygenation, some- times even years after the ischemic insult, can salvage these cells, which may explain why the acute findings of a stroke are poor predictors of ultimate clinical outcomes [67].
Even though HBOT causes decreased cerebral blood flow through vasoconstriction [70], it simul- taneously causes increased cerebral oxygen tension [20] and may accelerate brain recovery from ische- mia [71]. In one case report, 80 sessions of HBOT at 1.5 ATA increased oxygenation to the ischemic penumbra on SPECT scans and significantly im- proved cognitive and motor function in a patient with an ischemic brain injury from a near drowning episode 12 years earlier [14]. Another study of three patients with brain injuries showed areas of ‘‘dormant’’ neurons in the ischemic penumbra on SPECT scans prior to the commencement of HBOT at 1.5 ATA. All three patients had improvement in the oxygenation of these areas as seen on post- HBOT SPECT scans, which was correlated with clin- ical improvement [65].
HBOT has been used with clinical effectiveness in some cerebral hypoperfusion disorders includ- ing lupus [72] and traumatic midbrain syndrome [73], and may be beneficial in acute ischemic stroke [74] and acute myocardial infarction [16].
In addition, HBOT has been used in several stud- ies on children with cerebral palsy (CP). Some children with CP due to perinatal asphyxia have focal areas of cerebral hypoperfusion on SPECT scans [75]. Significant clinical improvements were found in one study of children with CP after 20 sessions of HBOT at 95% oxygen and 1.75 ATA [76].
Other studies using HBOT in cerebral hypoperfu- sion disorders have been performed at lower pres- sures (1.5 ATA or less). Stoller recently reported on one pediatric case of fetal alcohol syndrome, which is considered ‘‘irreversible and incurable’’ [13] and is characterized by cerebral hypoperfusion on SPECT studies [77]. Using HBOT at 1.5 ATA, the child had statistically significant improvements in verbal, memory, reaction time, impulse control, and visual motor scores [13]. In addition, Heuser et al. [78] treated a four year old autistic child using lower pressure HBOT at 1.3 ATA and reported ‘‘striking improvement in behavior including mem- ory and cognitive functions’’ after only ten ses- sions. Furthermore, the child had improvement of cerebral hypoperfusion as measured by pre-HBOT and post-HBOT SPECT scans [78]. These case re- ports are notable because they demonstrate that some ‘‘irreversible’’ and permanent neurological conditions can have clinical improvements with HBOT.
The number of HBOT sessions needed to produce full clinical improvements from cerebral hypoper- fusion or ischemia is unclear. In one study combin- ing the use of SPECT and HBOT, an average of 70 treatments was needed to show a significant in- crease in cerebral blood oxygenation and metabo- lism in patients with chronic neurological disorders including CP, stroke, and traumatic brain injury. Of note, the rate of improvement in cere- bral blood oxygenation was more profound during the last 35 treatments compared to the first 35 [79]. In addition, reports from some HBOT researchers indicate that younger patients tend to have improvements more quickly than older pa- tients [79]. Therefore, older patients may need more treatments.
Since many autistic children experience at least a mild degree of cerebral hypoperfusion, this de- creased blood flow could lead to an element of brain hypoxia. Multiple SPECT studies have shown evidence of relative brain hypoxia in certain cere- bral hypoperfusion syndromes, including autism [78], which improved after HBOT [14,65,78,79]. It is certainly plausible that the increased oxygen delivery by HBOT could overcome any hypoxia caused by hypoperfusion and thus lead to improve- ments in the symptoms of autistic children.
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Improving neuroinflammation in autism
Evidence of neuroinflammation in autism
Recent studies reveal that autism is characterized by neuroinflammation. Autopsy brain samples of autistic patients demonstrate an active neuroin- flammatory process in the middle frontal gryus, anterior cingulate gryus, and cerebellar hemi- spheres including increased microglial and astrog- lial activation and increased proinflammatory cytokines. Furthermore, cerebrospinal fluid ob- tained from living autistic patients also ‘‘showed a prominent proinflammatory profile’’ [49]. Previous studies of autistic children have shown circulating serum autoantibodies to brain elements including neuron-axon filament protein and glial fibrillary acidic protein [80], the caudate nucleus, cerebral cortex and cerebellum [81,82] and neuron-specific antigens including myelin basic protein [83,84].
Inflammation in autistic children is not limited to the brain. When compared to typical children, autistic children make significantly more serum antibodies against gliadin and casein peptides [85], produce more pro-inflammatory cytokines [86], and have an imbalance of CD4+ and CD8+ cells [87]. Furthermore, some patients with autism have mucosal inflammation of the stomach, small intes- tine and colon characterized by ileo-colonic lym- phoid nodular hyperplasia [88]. In these children, the gastrointestinal mucosa has evidence of proin- flammatory cytokines [89], increased lymphocytic density, and epithelial IgG deposits mimicking an autoimmune lesion [90].
Several different therapies have been employed in treating the inflammation found in autistic chil- dren with some clinical success, including intrave- nous immune globulin [91]. Further research is needed to clarify the role of inflammation in aut- ism and to investigate potential therapies [92]. However, HBOT may be useful in decreasing inflam- mation found in autistic patients and may thereby improve symptoms.
HBOT use in inflammatory conditions
Several animal studies have revealed that HBOT has potent anti-inflammatory tissue effects [93,94] with equivalence to diclofenac 20 mg/kg noted in one study using HBOT at 2.4 ATA and 100% oxygen [95]. HBOT has also been shown to decrease the symptoms of advanced arthritis in rats [96] and attenuates the inflammatory response in the perito- neal cavity caused by injected meconium [97]. In addition, one animal study using HBOT at 2.5 ATA
showed increased survival and decreased protein- uria, anti-dsDNA antibody titers, and immune-com- plex deposition in lupus-prone autoimmune mice [98]. Furthermore, HBOT has been used in animal studies to improve colitis [93]. Interestingly, thirty sessions of HBOT at 2.0 ATA has been used in hu- mans to achieve remission of ulcerative colitis not responding to conventional therapies [99]. This may be relevant in autistic children given the higher prevalence of gastrointestinal mucosal inflamma- tion described previously. Given the results of these studies, it is certainly plausible that HBOT can de- crease both neuroinflammation and gastrointestinal inflammation in autistic children and thereby potentially lead to improvements in symptoms.
Improving oxidative stress in autism
Evidence of increased oxidative stress in autism
Recent studies have shown that autistic children have evidence of increased oxidative stress includ- ing lower serum glutathione levels [100]. Sogut et al. [101] demonstrated that autistic children had increased red blood cell nitric oxide, which is a known reactive free radical and is toxic to the brain [101]. James et al. [100] recently showed that total serum glutathione levels were 46% lower and oxidized glutathione was 72% higher in autistic children when compared to neurotypical controls. This was reflected in a lower redox ratio of reduced glutathione to oxidized glutathione, which presum- ably led to decreased antioxidant ability in these autistic children [100]. Lower serum antioxidant enzyme, antioxidant nutrient, and glutathione lev- els, as well as higher pro-oxidants have been found in multiple studies of autistic children [102]. Fur- thermore, treatment with anti-oxidants has been shown to raise the levels of reduced glutathione in the serum of autistic children and appears to im- prove symptoms [100]. It is speculated that treat- ment with hyperbaric oxygen may also help reduce oxidative stress in autistic children.
The effect of HBOT on oxidative stress
Multiple studies have shown neutral effects on oxi- dative stress with HBOT use [103]. In one study on horse platelets, measures of oxidative stress were not increased after HBOT; in fact, a rise in the anti- oxidant enzyme superoxide dismutase (SOD) was found 24 h after HBOT without a fall in glutathione levels [104]. In another study on dogs, following 18 min of complete cerebral ischemia, HBOT at
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2.0 ATA reduced brain damage without increasing oxidative stress [105]. Furthermore, in a rat model of reperfusion, HBOT extended skin flap life with- out evidence of oxidative stress [106].
In addition, numerous studies have shown improvements in oxidative stress with HBOT includ- ing increased production of antioxidants and antiox- idant enzymes and decreased markers of oxidative stress such as malondialdehyde [105,107,108]. An improvement in the survival rate of skin flaps and an increase in SOD levels were found in one study when rats were exposed to hyperbaric oxygen at 2.0 ATA [109]. In another study, HBOT at 2.5 ATA in- duced the production of antioxidants and decreased malondialdehyde levels in rats [107]. Furthermore, in a study of rats with pancreatitis, HBOT at 2.5 ATA decreased oxidative stress markers including malondialdehyde, and increased the levels of the anti-oxidant enzymes glutathione peroxidase and SOD [108]. HBOT has also been shown to acutely raise the levels of reduced glutathione in the plasma and lymphocytes of some humans after just one treatment session at 2.5 ATA [110]. Finally, ische- mia-reperfusion injuries usually cause oxidative stress through decreases in glutathione levels and activities of catalase and SOD. However, in one rat study of ischemia, pretreatment with 1–3 doses of HBOT caused an increase in liver glutathione and SOD levels and protected against liver injury; con- trol animals not receiving HBOT actually had drops in glutathione and anti-oxidant enzyme levels and had concomitant liver damage [111].
HBOT, reactive oxygen species, and anti-oxidants
Concerns have been raised that HBOT may cause in- creased oxidative stress through the production of reactive oxygen species [112]. This concern is con- troversial as studies have shown mixed results. Contrary to the studies discussed previously, sev- eral studies using HBOT at 2.5 ATA or greater have found evidence of increased oxidative stress [113– 115]. Support for this higher pressure effect was found in one study, which demonstrated that HBOT at 2.0 ATA increased SOD levels whereas HBOT at 3.0 ATA caused SOD levels to decrease, presumably because the SOD had to neutralize more free radi- cals at the 3.0 ATA pressure [116]. Thus, from an oxidative stress and SOD production standpoint, there might be an optimal HBOT pressure, which falls somewhere below 2.5 ATA.
Along a similar line of thought, some authors have speculated that a limited quantity of reactive oxygen metabolites may actually have beneficial
effects in the human body [117–119]. The produc- tion of small amounts of oxygen radicals may con- fer protection from future hypoxia and this effect has been termed ‘‘ischemic tolerance.’’ In one ani- mal study, pre-treatment with HBOT at 2.0 ATA prior to an ischemia insult induced ischemic toler- ance whereas pre-treatment at 3.0 ATA did not, possibly because this higher pressure may have generated too many oxygen radicals [116].
Nevertheless, many studies demonstrate that HBOT lowers oxidative stress. Furthermore, oxida- tive stress appears to be less of a concern at pres- sures under 2.0 ATA, which are often used clinically [116]. In spite of this, therapies to raise glutathi- one levels [100] and the use of antioxidants [120] may be beneficial in patients with conditions of in- creased oxidative stress before HBOT is contem- plated. Several antioxidant supplements have been found to attenuate oxidative stress induced by high pressure HBOT including a-lipoic acid [112], melatonin [121], N-acetylcysteine [111,122], vitamin E [123], riboflavin [124], sele- nium [123,124], and glutathione [125]. Based upon these findings, a combination of antioxidants and HBOT may help reduce oxidative stress in autistic children and lead to improvements in symptoms.
Improving stem cell mobilization in autism
Recently, HBOT at 2.0 ATA and 100% oxygen for 2 h was shown to mobilize stem/progenitor cells from the bone marrow of humans. Elevations were found in the number of colony-forming cells as demon- strated by an increase in the number of CD34+ cells by almost 2-fold [126]. This finding is relevant be- cause autism and hypoxic brain injuries are consid- ered by many to be permanent conditions. However, new research is revealing that even long-standing brain disorders may be partially reversible [13,14]. Recently, stem cells have been isolated in the adult brain. This leads to the possi- bility of neuropoiesis, or regrowth, of certain brain cells. A possible scenario for inducing brain repair through the use of existing mature brain stem cells has been described and is dependent on an intact vascular supply and adequate oxygen [127], both of which can be enhanced by HBOT.
Testing the hypothesis
There is a strong possibility that HBOT could play an integral role in improving brain disorders associ- ated with hypoxia, hypoperfusion, inflammation,
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Table 1    Summary of HBOT use in autism
. Cerebral perfusion m Inflammation m Oxidative stress Neurodegenerative
m Perfusion to brain tissue . Inflammation . Oxidative stress m Stem cells
and/or oxidative stress, including autism, through the improvement of oxygen supply, decreased inflammation and oxidative stress, and/or the recruitment of new stem cells (see Table 1). This in turn should lead to improved clinical outcomes. Some physicians have begun using HBOT in autistic children and anecdotal reports indicate that HBOT has improved symptoms in autistic children includ- ing enhancements in socialization, language, and repetitive behaviors [78,128]. A recent retrospec- tive case series also indicates that low pressure HBOT may improve symptoms in autistic children (see Appendix A). Further research in this area, including HBOT trials in autistic patients, is ur- gently needed to test this hypothesis.
The authors thank the following for reviewing this manuscript and offering advice: Dr. John Battiston, Dr. Bentley Calhoun, Mr. Michael Haynes, Dr. Eliza- beth Mumper, Dr. David Slawson, and Dr. Kyle Van Dyke. Written consent was obtained from the chil- dren’s parent(s) for publication of case series data. The authors have two autistic sons who partici- pated in the case series.
Appendix A. Low pressure hyperbaric oxygen therapy1 improves symptoms in autistic children: A retrospective case series
Since low pressure HBOT (under 1.5 ATA) improved symptoms in some patients with cerebral hypoper-
1 Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) normally refers to inhal- ing 100% oxygen at greater than 1 ATA in a pressurized chamber [9]. However, for the purposes of this case series, the treatment with hyperbaric pressure at 1.3 ATA augmented with 28–30% oxygen is referred to as HBOT. Hyperbaric pressure at 1.3 ATA and room air is simply termed hyperbaric therapy.
fusion disorders [13–15,65], it was hypothesized that low pressure HBOT would also help autism, a disease in which cerebral hypoperfusion is an inte- gral component [31,32]. Recently, evidence has accumulated that low pressure hyperbaric therapy at 1.3 ATA and less than 100% delivered oxygen may improve symptoms in some diseases associated with cerebral hypoperfusion. For instance, one study using hyperbaric therapy at 1.3 ATA and room air demonstrated clinical improvements in some children with CP [129,130], a disease shown to have evidence of diminished cerebral blood flow [75]. Furthermore, one case report indicated ‘‘striking improvement’’ in a 4 year old child with autism after using hyperbaric therapy for 10 ses- sions at 1.3 ATA and room air. The child also had improvement of cerebral hypoperfusion as mea- sured by pre-HBOT and post-HBOT SPECT scans [78]. Based upon these findings, it was hypothe- sized that low pressure HBOT would improve symp- toms of autism. A retrospective case series was examined to evaluate this hypothesis. A review of the medical literature was performed using MED- LINE and Google Scholar and no clinical studies were found on the use of HBOT in autistic children.
This study is a retrospective analysis of 6 autistic children who underwent low-pressure HBOT. All 6 children had a prior diagnosis of autism (DSM-IV 299.00) by an outside physician and none of the children had previously received HBOT. In the nor- mal course of treatment, parent-rated scales were obtained pre-treatment and post-treatment. The University of Virginia Institutional Review Board for Health Sciences Research approved our retro- spective examination of cases in this study and for the use of this data for publication.
Informed consent was obtained from each child’s parent(s) prior to starting HBOT. All 6 chil- dren started and 5 completed 40 1 h sessions of low pressure HBOT at 1.3 ATA and 28–30% oxygen (after adjustment for the pressure effect) over a three month period. One child (Child C) only fin- ished twenty-five sessions due to scheduling con- flicts and was included in the analysis. All 6 children were taking multiple antioxidant supple- ments before starting HBOT. Children were allowed to continue all current therapies and to add new ones during HBOT. The characteristics of the chil- dren, including age and sex, are found in Table 2.
A low pressure hyperbaric chamber was used. Room air mixed with oxygen from an oxygen concentrator was pumped into the pressurized
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Table 2    Patient characteristics and scoresa
Child    Age
A 2 B 4 Cb 3 D 7
Sex    ATEC before HBOT
M 40 M 91 M 75 M 35
22 55 64 32 80 22
CARS before HBOT
21 37.5 45 27 41.5 23
SRS before HBOT
17 30 38 25 39.5 22 54
SRS after HBOT
44 110 121 62 121 67
6 F 7 F
88 24
98 154 135 94 139
a Declining scores indicate improvement on these scales. b Received only 25 HBOT treatments.
Table 3    Average score changesa by age
4 and under 5 and older All children
ATEC before HBOT
68.7 49.0 58.8
ATEC after    CARS before HBOT    HBOT
47.0    34.5 44.7    30.5 45.8    32.5
28.3 28.8 28.6
SRS before HBOT
129.0 95.7 112.3
SRS after HBOT
91.7 83.3 87.5
a Declining scores indicate improvement on these scales.
chamber, resulting in a final chamber oxygen con- centration of 28–30% by direct oximetry measure- ment using a Moxyä oxygen monitor and after adjustment for the pressure effect. Multiple ran- dom oximetry measurements were taken on differ- ent treatment days to verify the consistency of the chamber oxygen concentration, which uniformly remained 28–30%. Parent rated pre-treatment scores and post-treatment scores were calculated for each subject (see Table 2) using the Autism Treatment Evaluation Checklist (ATEC), Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS), and Social Responsive- ness Scale (SRS). ATEC is a scoring system of verbal communication, sociability, sensory/cognitive awareness, and health/autistic behaviors published by the Autism Research Institute [131]. CARS is a widely used scale for screening and diagnosing aut- ism and has been shown to correlate very well with
the DSM-IV criteria for autism diagnosis [132]. SRS is a recently validated test of interpersonal behav- ior, communication, and stereotypical traits in autism [133].
Low pressure HBOT was well tolerated by all 6 chil- dren with no adverse effects noted. More dramatic improvements were found in children age 4 and under when compared to those in the older group (Table 3).
ATEC score results
The average improvement in all children on ATEC was 22.1% (p = 0.0538) ( Fig. 1). ATEC scores im- proved by 31.6% in the younger group compared to 8.8% in the older group (Fig. 2).
100 80 60 40 20 0
Before HBOT
After 40 HBOT
Figure 1    ATEC scores for all children.
Child A    Child C    Child E Child B    Child D    Child F
80 60 40 20
Before HBOT
After 40 HBOT
Figure 2    ATEC scores by age.
Age Under 5 Age Over 5
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CARS score results
The average improvement in all children on CARS was 12.1% (p=0.0178) (Fig. 3). CARS improved
18.0% in the younger group and 5.6% in the older group (Fig. 4).
SRS score results
The average improvement in all children on SRS was    22.1%    (p = 0.0518)    (Fig.    5).    SRS    improved 28.9% in the younger group and 13.0% in the older group (Fig. 6).
Autism is characterized, in part, by decreased cerebral blood flow [31,32]. Low pressure HBOT has been used in some cerebral hypoperfusion conditions including CP. Recently, a study demon- strated that some children with CP had clinical improvements using hyperbaric therapy at 1.3 ATA. In this study, 111 patients with CP and a his- tory of hypoxia in the perinatal period had statis- tically significant clinical improvements in gross motor function, memory, attention, and language production after hyperbaric therapy. One group received lower pressure hyperbaric therapy at 1.3 ATA and room air while the other group was given higher pressure HBOT at 1.75 ATA and 100% oxygen. Interestingly, the improvements in symptoms were statistically equivalent in the two groups [129]. Most of the improvements con- tinued for 3 months after treatment and some of the children from the study began walking, speak- ing, and sitting for the first times in their lives [130]. However, it must be noted that this study was controversial, as children in the lower pres- sure group improved equally with children in the higher pressure group. However, based on these findings, it was hypothesized that low-pressure HBOT could potentially improve symptoms in autistic children.
This case series suggests that low pressure HBOT may indeed be beneficial in the treatment of aut- ism. An interesting finding from this case series was that the younger children had more significant improvements in clinical outcome scores than the older children. This is congruent with reports from some HBOT researchers indicating that younger pa- tients tend to have improvements more quickly than older patients [79]. This effect may be par- tially explained by the findings of a previous study, which showed that autistic children aged 3–4 years experience diminished frontal lobe blood flow com- pared to age-matched neurotypical children [41]. It is possible that HBOT in younger autistic children can improve cerebral oxygenation and thus over- come the effects of hypoperfusion and aid these children in ‘‘catching up’’ with their neurotypical
50 40 30 20 10
Before HBOT
After 40 HBOT
Figure 3    CARS scores for all children.
Child A    Child C    Child E Child B    Child D    Child F
40 30 20 10
Before HBOT
After 40 HBOT
Figure 4    CARS scores by age.
Age Under 5 Age Over 5
180 160 140 120 100
80 60 40 20
Before HBOT
After 40 HBOT
Figure 5    SRS scores for all children.
Child A    Child C    Child E Child B    Child D    Child F
140 120 100
80 60 40 20
Before HBOT
After 40 HBOT
Figure 6    SRS scores by age.
Age Under 5
Age Over 5
Score    Score    Score    Score
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy may improve symptoms in autistic children    225
peers. Furthermore, the younger children in this case series may have had less overall hypoperfusion to surmount because decreased cerebral blood flow to areas associated with communication has been shown to worsen with increasing age in autistic children [27]. It is likely that the older children in this case series need more than 40 HBOT sessions to show further improvements, especially since some HBOT researchers have noted that 50–80 HBOT sessions are typically needed to show signif- icant clinical gains [79]. In addition, the chamber was augmented with only 28–30% oxygen instead of 100% oxygen. It is possible that the children in this case series may have experienced more improvements if 100% oxygen and/or a higher pres- sure had been used. These speculations certainly warrant further testing.
This case series did have several inherent limi- tations. Children were allowed to continue all other therapies for autism and also add new ones, such as supplements. Therefore, other therapies could have contributed to the some of the clinical gains. Parents were not blinded to the fact that their children received HBOT and evaluation of the children was through parent-rated scales, either of which could lead to bias. There was no placebo or control group. Thus, the improvements could have been due merely to the natural development of the children, although none of the parents reported their child as undergoing developmental spurts of similar or greater magni- tude in the recent past. Finally, this series lacked power because the sample size was small. Despite these limitations, the analysis of this case series suggests substantial clinical benefits were pro- duced, and therefore, this hypothesis needs to be tested in a formal prospective study.
HBOT has been shown to increase oxygen delivery to hypoperfused or hypoxic tissues, decrease inflammation and oxidative stress, and mobilize stem cells from human bone marrow. The mecha- nism of clinical improvements in ATEC, CARS, and SRS scores in the children studied may be second- ary to increased oxygenation of underperfused areas of the autistic brain, reduced neuroinflam- mation, decreased oxidative stress, or a combina- tion of these. This case series suggests that low pressure HBOT improves symptoms in autistic chil- dren. Further research in this area, including HBOT trials in autistic patients, using observers blinded to the intervention, is now needed to test this hypothesis.
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Hyperbaric Centers of Florida recently sponsored the 7th Annual Pasco County Autism Awareness Walk on April 2 and April 9th, 2011.  We raffled off tickets for 40 rounds of Hyperbaric treatments and all proceeds went to benefit the Autism Awareness Walk.  You can see more details at the following link:

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