Yale Child Psychiatrist Supports Results of Autism Treatment Study That Shows A Popular Drug is Ineffective

A treatment for autistic children that was touted by the media and anxious parents as a wonder drug has been shown to have no effect, highlighting the need for controlled studies, according to a Yale psychiatrist.

The drug secretin did no better at controlling autistic symptoms than a placebo, according to a study published in the December 9 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. Conducted by researchers at a variety of institutions in North Carolina, the study looked at the effect of secretin, a gastrointestinal hormone, on 56 children with autism and similar disorders. They found that a single dose of secretin is not an effective treatment for autism, a brain disorder that begins in childhood and results in delayed or deviant social and communication skills.

The disorder affects one in approximately 2,000 children and there is no known cure. Parents often feel overwhelmed and devastated by this diagnosis and many turned to secretin after it was widely reported that it made remarkable improvement in an autistic child, according to Fred Volkmar, M.D., professor of child psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine and author of an editorial on the study.

“Parents scrambled to obtain this ‘cure’ for their children in the absence of data on safety and efficacy,” Volkmar said. “Given the absence of a cure for autism, it is not surprising that a host of new treatments, often accompanied by extravagant claims for improvement, have inadequate data to back it up. What makes an effective television program may not make good science.”

The willingness of parents to pursue unproven or emerging treatments is understandable because of the seriousness of autism, Volkmar said. But it is important that parents know that some interventions have been proven to be effective and helpful. Such treatments should not be lightly abandoned. For many children there are demonstrable and important benefits of behavioral therapies and educational interventions.

“For other treatments reliable data are minimal or absent,” said Volkmar. “Parents and professionals must struggle with making informed treatment decisions for individual children. These decisions should weigh the benefits and potential risks of treatment and information currently available on those treatments which have been demonstrated to be effective.”

In his editorial, Volkmar adds that some proposed cures, such as injections of sheep brain extract, have obvious inherent physical dangers to children.

“The lesson to be learned from secretin relates to the relationship of science and the media as well as to the nature and treatment of autism,” Volkmar said. “In the case of secretin, the extensive media attention in the absence of substantive data was clearly premature and unfortunate.”

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Karen N. Peart: karen.peart@yale.edu, 203-432-1326