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Deep Brain Stimulation May Hold Promise for Autism

Image of puzzle pieces as a symbol for autism.

The idea of a pacemaker for the brain might seem odd, but some neurosurgeons are using a similar device to treat psychiatric disorders.

You’ve probably heard of pacemakers for the heart. These are small battery-operated devices that send electrical impulses to the heart to regulate the heartbeat.

Deep brain stimulation is a technique that involves implanting electrodes into the brain, which send electrical impulses to regulate how that part of the brain functions.

Just like a heart pacemaker, the amount of electrical stimulation is controlled by a device implanted beneath the skin in the upper chest. A neurosurgeon adjusts the device to give just the right amount of stimulation to the brain.

This technique has been used to successfully treat Parkinson’s Disease and obsessive compulsive disorder.

Columbia neurosurgeon Dr. Sameer Sheth thinks it may also be useful for treating autism. Dr. Sheth co-wrote an article for the Journal of Neurosurgery in which he and his colleagues examine the possibilities of using deep brain stimulation to treat symptoms of severe autism.

Autism is a disorder that affects a wide range of functions such as social interaction and processing, ability to communicate, repetitive behavior, and responses to sensory stimulation. It’s called “autism spectrum disorder” because symptoms vary from person to person, and may be anywhere from mild to severe. In the most severe cases patients are sometimes nonverbal, and may have behaviors that harm themselves and others.

Dr. Sheth and his co-authors explain that even though there are so many differences in autism symptoms from person to person, researchers have uncovered a trend in the brains of autistic children. These children tend to have an area of the brain–the amygdala–that grows at an abnormal rate, and that is larger and thicker than that of typical children.

limbicsystem-600x600What is the amygdala? It’s a group of neurons deep inside the brain that is part of the limbic system. It is roughly the shape of an almond–“amygdala” is the Latin word for almond.

The limbic system is what helps us to regulate our emotions and social interactions. The amygdala is responsible for helping us process emotions such as fear, anger, and pleasure. It also manages what memories get stored in which areas of the brain.

Because autism is partly a disorder of social perception and processing, Dr. Sheth and his colleagues believe that targeting the amygdala could bring relief to patients suffering severe autism symptoms.

Enter deep brain stimulation. Because deep brain stimulation can target a very precise area of the brain, Dr. Sheth and his co-authors suspect that using it to stimulate a particular part of the amygdala might give relief to some of the most severe symptoms of autism.

The authors caution that deep brain stimulation is not a cure for autism, but it might help ease some of the most severe symptoms. It’s a procedure that may be considered only after all other medical treatment has failed. But for those with severe and life-threatening symptoms, they believe it is worth further study.

Read the whole article here.

Learn more about Dr. Sameer Sheth at his bio page here.

Image credits: Athanasia Nomikou/Dollar Photo ClubFotolia365/Dollar Photo Club

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