By: Debby Hoffer
During an informative seminar, Dr. Sherman Johnson, M.D. and Dr. Chitra Bhakta, M.D., reviewed startling evidence about an alternative therapy for treating autism. Known as hyperbaric oxygen therapy or HBOT, it is commonly used to treat wounds, deep sores, and crush injuries. The effectiveness of this therapy in treating traumatic injuries has demonstrated that a relatively low pressure of oxygen administered in a pressurized chamber can significantly assist in reducing tissue inflammation and promote healthy circulation of oxygenated blood.
Reductions of brain and gut inflammation as well as overall blood flow are common concerns in treating the autistic condition. This correlation between oxygen, reduced inflammation and increased blood flow presents a strong argument that HBOT could be a formidable new weapon in the fight against autism.
A Healing Hypothesis
In an article published in Medical Hypotheses, volume 67, issue 2, of 2006, a team from the Department of Family Medicine of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, VA, presents a clear hypothesis with supporting evidence that HBOT may improve both medical and behavioral symptoms in autistic children.
The hypothesis suggests that autistic brain inflammation as shown in ultrasounds and PET (positron emission tomography) scans reduces blood flow to the brain’s temporal lobes, and thalamus. The temporal lobes of the brain deal primarily with proper hearing, emotional responses, memory and speech while the thalamus acts as the receiver and director of signals from the various brain regions.
Dr. Bhakata states that this reduced blood flow in the brain is “responsible for some of the behaviors and symptoms that are seen in autistic kids.” She also points out that the reduced blood flow within the brain varies with a child’s age, and is difficult to correct as a child grows older. The hyperbaric hypothesis is that damaged brain tissue, treated with anti-inflammatory medications and saturated with oxygen, can heal as swelling is reduced and blood flow is increased.
Autistic children also suffer from abnormal swelling in the stomach and throughout the gastrointestinal system. All of this swelling results in an exaggerated response from the immune system, producing a large number of cytokines which are protein agents of the immune system that communicate between various cells. Preliminary studies have shown that HBOT along with anti-inflammatory medications can promote a more regulated immune system resulting in a significant reduction in the medical and behavioral symptoms commonly associated with autism.
Autism and Oxidative Stress
The medical community has conducted various studies that support the theory that autism is caused by multiple factors including a genetic disposition for the body to retain polluting toxins from surrounding environments. Oxidative stress occurs when a body cell struggles to get enough oxygen to repair significant damage within the cell structure.
A healthy cell should be able to repair itself even after exposure to minor environmental irritations. It is theorized that autism, resulting from a genetic pre-disposition for the body to be aggravated by environmental toxins, sustains a deregulation of the immune system, and increased swelling throughout the brain and gut.
This bodily panic attack creates a state of oxidative stress so that the body is unable to heal itself within normal parameters. The theory is that this oxidative stress, caused by a body’s inability to excrete environmental toxins, ultimately results in a toxic body burden within multiple organ systems.
These systems are then unable to heal themselves due to toxic interference and stress within the cells as they expend energy in trying to accomplish a futile healing process. During her presentation, Dr. Bhakata indicated that HBOT along with another alternative therapy called chelation can rid the body of the toxic burden and relieve oxidative stress.
Chelation and HBOT
Chelation is a proven method to treat toxic exposure to lead and other environmental toxins. It was developed in the 1940s as a method to remove toxic metals from people exposed to them while serving in the military. It is approved by the American Academy of Pediatrics and has proven effective in the treatment for lead exposure and similar toxic conditions. It is, however, not officially recommended as a treatment for autism and is considered to be an unproven therapy for autism spectrum disorder.
Chelation is a process where a chemical binding agent is introduced intravenously into a patient’s blood. DSMA is a chelating agent used for the removal of lead and it has the official Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) approval for such use. Although it can remove mercury and other heavy metals, it has not officially been approved by the FDA for the removal of metal toxins related to autism. The chelation process works as the binding agent binds with mercury and other heavy metals present in the blood stream allowing the body to excrete the metal toxins through the urinary tract system. The Hyperbaric Healing Centers , of which both Dr. Sherman and Dr. Bhakta are a part, promote both chelation and HBOT as effective alternative treatments for autism.
HBOT: How Does It Work?
HBOT was originally developed for the diving industry to help divers and others of similar professions overcome decompression sickness. It involves putting a patient into a sealed chamber that is pressurized with oxygen. Relatively low oxygen pressures are recommended in treating a child with autism.
Chambers vary in structure. The less expensive models have a soft case while the more expensive models have a hard case. A more modern chamber will have clear sides and top so that a patient can see outside while receiving treatment. A patient lies down comfortably inside the pressurized chamber and oxygen is administered and breathed in by the patient for an allotted amount of time.
While receiving treatment, children listen to music and some centers feature overhead television. Hyperbaric oxygen chambers are large enough for two people to fit inside. If a child is anxious or claustrophobic about going inside a chamber, a parent can lie down with the child during treatment to lend a calming influence.
Pre-cautions, Side Effects and Cost
Before beginning any type of treatment, parents should consult with an autism specialist or pediatrician. Side effects from HBOT are mild and could include reversible myopia, mild seizures, sinus squeeze, and ear pressure issues. Cost for Hyperbaric Treatment varies, and treatment of the autistic condition using HBOT is not covered by most insurance companies.
Preliminary evidence suggests that HBOT could offer significant improvement of overall health in autistic children, yet it is important to note that it has not been proven by clinical studies and more studies are clearly needed.
An Autistic Child Can Improve Using HBOT
An unidentified woman at the autism seminar gave testimony that HBOT therapy along with an organic diet completely recovered her grandchild from the autistic condition. Gratitude showed in her face as she expressed joy over watching her granddaughter progress to recognize basic colors and letters. Dr. Bhakta expressed similar findings as she has
personally witnessed improvement in the overall health and behavior of her autistic patients.
Dr. Sherman expressed concern over the seriousness of the autistic condition stating that “without interventions, the prognosis is grim, but we know that treatments have evolved and that they are very successful and there is much hope.” The future of HBOT to help autistic children is still medically unclear, but one thing is certain, HBOT offers a hopeful alternative therapy in the fight against autism spectrum disorder.
More information on behavioral therapy combined with HBOT therapy at an affordable camp for kids suffering from brain injuries and disabilities.