Up to one-third of parents of children with autism spectrum
disorders (ASD)—including autism, Asperger syndrome, and pervasive
developmental disorder—have tried nonmainstream treatments. Unfortunately, as
many as 10% have turned to treatments that are potentially harmful, according
to the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention.
Chelation therapy, which aims to rid the body of toxic
metals such as mercury, falls into the latter category. A new
journal article from Baylor University concluded that the treatment of ASD
with chelation is not only unproven, but also risky.
For the article, published online by Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, a team of researchers looked
at the scientific evidence for and against using chelation to treat ASD. There
wasn’t much to go on. The researchers found only five small studies that met
minimal scientific standards, and even those studies had significant weaknesses
in their design.
Of the five studies, four showed a mix of positive and
negative outcomes in treated children. The fifth showed positive results, but
it involved only a single child. The researchers deemed the scant evidence
“insufficient”—the lowest level of certainty.
Other experts have reached the same conclusion. In 2011, the
for Healthcare Research and Quality issued a report on therapies for children
with ASD, which found that research does not support using chelation for this purpose.
Unproven benefits are only half the problem. There are also potentially
In chelation therapy, the person being treated is given a
chemical agent that’s supposed to bind with certain metals and eliminate them
from the body. The chemicals used in the treatment have a wide range of potential
side effects. According to the article’s authors, these may include fever,
vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, high or low blood pressure, hemorrhoids,
metallic taste in the mouth, irregular heartbeats, and low calcium levels.
It’s not the first time an alarm has been sounded. Two years
ago, the Food
and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a stern warning to companies touting
over-the-counter chelation products as treatments for autism and other
conditions. At the time, an FDA medical officer noted that chelation can lead
to dehydration, kidney failure, and even death.
The underlying premise for treating ASD with chelation has
also been called into question. The hypothesized link between ASD and metal
poisoning has never been conclusively established.
Plus, mercury is often the metal targeted by the treatment.
But according to the Autism
Science Foundation, symptoms of mercury poisoning differ from those of ASD,
making chelation an impractical way to target the core problems of autism.
In a statement
about the new article, lead author Tonya Davis, PhD, an assistant professor
of educational psychology at Baylor, sums up things this way: "My hope is that this research will help parents make
informed choices when selecting treatments for their child with ASD. While I
understand a parent's desire to try anything and everything that may help their
child, as a researcher, it is difficult to watch a family spend time, money,
and resources on interventions that research has found to be ineffective, or
worse, potentially dangerous.”
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