Electrical Jolt in the Brain Helps Autistic Boy

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  • February 1, 2013
  • by Christine
  • amygdala, DBS, Deep Brain Stimulation, electrodes, self injurious behavior, SIB, Volker Sturm,
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A thirteen-year-old boy with severe autism was able to speak and sing for the first time after receiving Deep Brain Stimulation. Researchers at the University of Cologne, Germany, implanted two electrodes deep into the boy’s brain and stimulated various parts of the brain. The boy’s behavior improved dramatically.

Deep Brain Stimulation has been used for  chronic pain, Parkinson's disease, tremor and dystonia.

Deep Brain Stimulation has been used for chronic pain, Parkinson’s disease, tremor and dystonia.

By age three, the boy started hurting himself. Drugs worked until age 11. By then, he was fitted with restraints that remained on him all of the time and required 24-hour supervision to prevent life-threatening self-injury. His infantile cerebral palsy and permanent body restraints caused him to be wheelchair bound and unable to walk or stand without assistance.

He could not sleep for more than 90 minutes and woke up screaming for long periods of time.

He made no eye contact, developed no language skills and did not explore new things. He had frequent temper tantrums and anxiety attacks.

The researchers found that electrical impulses sent to the amygdala, that part of the brain which controls memory and emotion, reduced the severity and frequency of the violent behaviors. The boy tried new foods and explored new things. After six months, he said, “Mama”, “Papa” and “Hunger”. He would sing along with a song.

A chart showing how the Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) improved the boy’s behavior.

After ten months of success, the battery died and the violent behavior returned. When a new battery was installed after four weeks of downtime, the behaviors improved.

The surgery was done in the summer of 2009, but the results have just been published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience (January 21, 2013). The researchers, led by Volker Sturm, caution that this is highly experimental and will not apply to all cases of autism. More studies need to be done to assess the long-term effects.

However, in a case that is eerily similar to that of Alex Echols, who takes medical marijuana to minimize his self-injurious behaviors, the parents probably felt the same way that Jeremy and Karen Echols felt about the long-term effects of something that is unknown versus the long-term effects of injuring one’s self.

Arrows indicate the position of the electrodes in the boy’s brain.

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