Hyperbaric oxygen therapy autism treatments are alternative approaches to treating pervasive developmental disorders. The strategy is pricey and no scientific tests support or discount the procedure. The possible causes of autism may shed light on how the oxygen therapy works for individuals on the spectrum.
What is Hyperbaric Therapy
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) provides rich oxygen to the cells of the body using a pressurized chamber. The term hyper relates to intensified or increased, and baric refers to pressure. The approach systematically introduces pressurized oxygen to the body in an artificial atmosphere that is higher than normal pressure.
Normally, people breathe air that consists of different gases, roughly 20 percent of which is oxygen. Hyperbaric oxygen therapies for autistic disorders provide 100 percent oxygen in a pressurized chamber. When the rich levels of oxygen are introduced to the body, changes take place on a cellular level.
Greater concentration of oxygen within the cells of the body is believed to offer healing properties. Individuals who have autism and mitochondrial dysfunction may benefit from the oxygen therapy because it works on a cellular level. Mitochondrial dysfunction occurs in the cells and the oxygen is thought to repair the mitochondria, the energy-producing elements in cells. Proponents of hyperbaric oxygen therapy for autism assert that the alternative treatments for autism can offer:
- Increase oxygen levels in all of the tissues in the body
- Improve circulation
- Promotes new blood vessel growth
- Increased oxygen levels in body organs
- Develops antioxidants
- Improves immune system
HBOT is not specifically designed to treat autism spectrum disorders. The approach was originally developed to prevent divers from getting the bends. Other conditions treated with this alternative medicine include but are not limited to:
- Cerebral palsy
- Brain injuries
- Vascular disease
- Diabetic ulcers
- Multiple sclerosis
- Macular degeneration
While these conditions may not appear to relate directly to autism, brain functioning is a primary concern with the disorder. Proponents for oxygen in the treatment of pervasive developmental disorders believe that the approach can help brain functioning.
Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy Autism
Current autism research notes brain differences in individuals diagnosed with autism from neurotypical individuals. The HBOT treatments may help by activating inactive areas of the brain by stimulating neurons that are not functioning properly. Regions of the brain that appear to be affected in cases of autism include the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex, among other regions.
Stimulating the Limbic System
The limbic system is of particular concern because this area of the brain, as Stephen M. Edelson, Ph.D. notes, involves many behavioral functions that may be lacking in many cases of autism. The neurons in regions within the limbic system are smaller in individuals on the autism spectrum in some studies.
- Amygdala involves emotional processing and aggression as well as passivity.
- Appearing to have no emotions
- Self injury
- Socially withdrawn
- Extreme passivity
- Aggressive behavior
- Compulsive behaviors
- Problems with safety awareness
- Memory problems
- Problems adjusting to new situations
- Sensory processing problems in auditory, visual and olfactory systems
- Hippocampus involves memory and learning.
- Unable to retain new information
- Self-stimulatory behaviors (stims)
The connection between behavior and the limbic system is still under investigation and no conclusive scientific evidence is available in humans. Most research connecting behavior and the regions in this system of the brain relate to animals and not pervasive developmental disorders specifically.
Hyperbaric Treatment Autism Studies
It may be speculated that improvements in brain functioning in the limbic system may have some connection to oxygen treatments. A study that is specific to hyperbaric treatment for children with autism published by BioMed Central Pediatrics found improvements in:
- Eye contact
- Social interaction
- Receptive processing in language
- Sensory awareness
- Cognitive awareness
- Less irritability
- Stereotyped repetitive movements (stims) reduced
- Less hyperactive
The study concludes that children who received hyperbaric oxygen treatment for autism showed improvements compared to kids who had limited pressurized air.
More studies are required both in brain functioning and oxygen therapies for individuals on the autism spectrum before any absolute conclusions can be made. The unusual approach to treating pervasive developmental disorders shows promise, but currently there is no conclusive scientific backing for this expensive treatment.