Can Stem Cells Cure Autism?
Autism, which is more clinically referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, is a complex medical condition that has taken to generations to document an even basic understanding. For centuries, ASD was not even recognized as its own distinct medical condition, and even throughout the majority of the 20th century, it was often misdiagnosed as other disorders, such as schizophrenia, and subject to treatments for those conditions.
Today, ASD is now properly recognized as a far-ranging condition with a broad array of different symptoms at different intensities, which is why it is referred to as a spectrum instead of a single disease or disorder with a shortlist of symptoms. The challenge of the 21st century is now in addressing the many unique needs of children and adults diagnosed with ASD. One emerging method of treatment is known as stem cell therapy, which is a new treatment technology that is still being heavily researched.
But can stem cells cure ASD where other treatments can’t? What are stem cells, and what makes them so different?
The Complexity Of ASD
First, it’s important to understand some of the basics of Autism Spectrum Disorder. It is an enormously complex condition that can be contracted by individuals in a few different ways. It’s not as simple as measles or the flu, where exposure to others with the condition leads to illness. ASD can be genetic, where an ASD diagnosed parent has children also diagnosed with the condition. However, ASD can also be prenatal, where a pregnant mother contracting illness such as rubella, may inadvertently have that infection cause neural damage to a developing baby, also resulting in ASD.
ASD, like diabetes, or asthma, is a lifelong condition. It doesn’t respond to antibiotics or vaccines and carries a huge series of different symptoms that range from behavioral to neurological and even physical. As a result, there is no one universal approach or treatment for ASD, and like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s Disease, or diabetes, there is currently no known cure. The best that can be achieved is that some of the symptoms of ASD can be managed.
The Stem Cell Alternative
Some forms of ASD treatment, like behavioral therapy, teach ASD patients important skills that help them to overcome some ASD symptoms consciously. Learning to maintain eye contact through behavioral therapy, for example, may be a more effective and overall more valuable long term treatment strategy than relying on medication. Some forms of treatment, however, do use medication, such as antipsychotics for more extreme forms of ASD behavior.
Where stem cell therapy differs is that it does not suppress or overcome symptoms, it goes to one of the possible causes. One element of ASD is that it may be a neurological disorder, with nerve cells, neurotransmitters, or other components of the nervous system not working as intended. This can result in some symptoms like hostility, inability to pay attention for sustained periods, or communication difficulties. Stem cell therapy can repair some of the neurological damage and reduce or eliminate some of these symptoms.
How It Works
Stem cells have the nickname in medical science of “master cells” because they are pluripotent, a unique property not found in other cells in humans. A pluripotent stem cell can change or “reprogram” itself to become any cell in the body. This can mean very common cells, such as skin or hair cells that reproduce all the time, or even heart cells, that, once formed, can never reproduce, meaning that heart damage is permanent damage.
Stem cells are generated during pregnancy, and it is because of stem cells that a fertilized egg can divide continuously. Then, unlike hair or skin cells, which can only produce copies of themselves, the stem cell can branch out and specialize into the hair, brain, heart, lung, liver, eye, kidney, and many other cells required to create the organs that make up a baby.
Stem Cell Therapy
Stem cell therapy uses stem cells harvested from “cord blood,” the fluids left in the umbilical cord after a child is born. This ensures maximum biological compatibility with a recipient if the option is available. If a child being treated for ASD with stem cell therapy does not have stem cells available, a supply from a sibling, if available, can also be used. If that option is also unavailable, the less versatile “multipotent” stem cells in bone marrow can be harvested from the patient, but this involves some surgery to access and collect the stem cells.
Once the stem cells have been acquired, they are injected, usually intrathecally, into the spinal column. From there, the stem cells can repair any compromised or faulty neurological cells by growing new, undamaged ones. However, this type of treatment is currently unavailable in the United States. Only other countries, such as Georgia, for example, currently offer a legal option for these treatments. The USA only authorizes stem cell therapy for the public in blood/leukemia related medical situations.