Autism Spectrum Disorder, more commonly referred to as ASD or autism, is a very complex condition. For the moment, no cure exists, so it fits into a class of other lifelong conditions, such as diabetes or asthma, where, once a diagnosis is confirmed, an ASD patient will manage those symptoms for the remainder of a lifetime.
However, unlike some conditions such as diabetes, ASD is not something that manifests later in life, whereas a person may not show symptoms of diabetes until adulthood, or even the senior years. ASD is always evident within a few months or years after birth. As a condition, ASD is one of the more challenging ones to both diagnose and treat because it has a huge range of symptoms. It wasn’t until the 1980s, when ASD was properly recognized by medical texts that some disorders, like Asperger’s Syndrome was finally recognized to be just ASD symptoms.
It’s partly because of this huge range of different symptoms that a range of different treatment options exists. One of them is stem cell therapy. But how does treatment for cancer have any relevance to ASD?
The Neurological Aspect
ASD’s specific causes are not yet fully understood. It’s known that is often a genetic component, since an adult diagnosed with ASD may give birth to children who also have ASD. However, there are pre-natal and possible post-natal factors, as well. A woman who contracts rubella during pregnancy can, as a side-effect of that, have a baby with ASD. Some medical experts suspect that even factors during, or after birth, such as insufficient oxygen at a critical phase, may also contribute to the contraction of ASD.
Because of these methods of transmission, it’s clear that while the chief symptoms of ASD are behavioral, such as not maintaining eye contact, an insistence on a specific routine, or even speaking in a monotone, like a robot, there is a definite medical cause, not psychological at the root of the condition.
For example, some ASD patients have explained the discomfort with looking someone directly in the eye as overstimulating, as if they see and experience more sensory information from doing this than other people. That would point to a differing in how the neural signals are being interpreted by the ASD patient, indicating that there may be a nerve cell factor at work in how ASD patients process sensory input and the resulting distinct behavior.
What Stem Cells Can Do
Stem cell therapy is a relatively new form of treatment, but it has some incredibly promising results for a wide variety of different conditions. A stem cell is a very special type of cell that medical science has nicknamed the “master cell.” It gets this nickname because, unlike other cells that can only make copies of themselves, stem cells can become any cell in the human body.
So while hair cells can only grow more hair, and skin cells can only heal cuts and abrasions, a stem cell can turn into a brain cell, a lung cell, a hair cell, a blood cell, or anything else. Stem cells are what make pregnancy possible, as a single, fertilized egg cell continues to divide and eventually specializes into the different organs that make up a baby.
How Therapy Works
Stem cell therapy is essentially a transplant of stem cells into a patient so that the stem cells can replace problematic cells. However, stem cells need to be compatible with the patient. The best stem cells, known as pluripotent, come from a child’s birth. During pregnancy, the mother’s body produces far more stem cells than are required, and these stem cells remain in the fluids in the umbilical cord, which is known as “cord blood.” This cord blood can, on request, be harvested and stored for later use and will be 100% compatible with a child, since they were instrumental in that child’s embryonic development.
If a child’s specific cord blood is not available, a close genetic relative, such as a younger sibling may still have pluripotent stem cells that are compatible, if the parents elected to have them stored. If neither of these options is available, less versatile stem cells can be harvested directly from a person’s bone marrow, but this is a surgical—and thus more invasive—procedure.
Once the stem cells are ready for use, they are injected into the area of concern, This can be intravenous, such as needle into a vein, or intrathecal, into the spinal cord. In both cases, however, the goal is the same, to introduce stem cells into a problem area so that healthier cells can grow.
Unfortunately, at least in the United States, the only legal form of stem cell therapy is for leukemia, a type of blood cancer. For parents that wish to treat their child with stem cell therapy for autism, they must visit other countries, such as Mexico, or Georgia, to have the procedure done legally, and with high-quality medical care and staff.