Stem cell treatments for autism seek to address the pathogenic mechanisms of autism, which makes the approach unique among the various treatments for autistic disorders.
What Are Stem Cells?
Stem cells are original cells that are able to change to mimic specialized cells in the body. The National Institutes of Health describes these primal cells as having the potential to replenish, heal and repair specialized cells. They have primary characteristics that make them distinct:
- They are not specialized.
- They can renew themselves through cell division.
- They can change into specialized cells.
Types of stem cells include:
- Somatic stem cells are present in adult tissue, blood and organs.
- Cord blood stem cells are present in the placenta and umbilical cord.
- Embryonic stem cells are present in fetal tissue.
- Induced pluripotent stem cells are adult cells that are reprogrammed to have the properties of embryonic stem cells.
Stem Cell Treatments for Autism Research
Research on stem cell treatments for autism is ongoing. Many therapies for pervasive developmental disorders address problems with the immune system, mitochondrial dysfunction and poor oxygen circulation to the brain. Treatments such as hyperbaric oxygen therapy and gluten free diets have varying results. Using stem cells is an approach that may address the source of the dysfunction in each system.
Journal of Translational Medicine
The Journal of Translational Medicine’s article Stem Cell Therapy for Autism looks at two problems associated with autism that may be treated with stem cells, hypoperfusion and immune deregulation. The article proposes using CD34+ umbilical cord cells and mesenchymal cells.
Hypoperfusion (reduction of blood flow) can lead to hypoxia (concentration of oxygen falls below life sustaining levels) in the brain, which can lead to cell death and abnormal brain function. In theory, stem cell therapy may reverse hypoxia while activating the brain’s “self repair mechanisms.”
The connection between immune function and nervous system is strong. Stem cells may repair the immune system, which in theory would lead to improved neurological functioning.
Salk Institute for Biological Studies
A study from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies published in the science journal Nature explores the potential of using stem cells to repair circuits in individuals with neurological conditions such as:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Brain injury
- Parkinson’s disease
Stem cells in the adult brain divide, and they have three potential paths to follow:
- Remain a stem cell
- Change into a neuron
- Change into oligodendrocytes or astrocytes (part of a support network of cells in the brain)
The stem cells require prompting from chemical signals to turn into specialized cells. Figuring out how to stimulate the chemical signals the stem cells to change into brain cells that are lost or damaged in neurological conditions.
Research is ongoing but the use of stem cells to treat autistic disorders appears to be very promising. Many clinical trials are necessary to determine whether the treatments work. The research may lead to a better understanding of the pathophysiology of autism.