Autism Spectrum Disorder, commonly known as Autism, has been categorized as a neurodevelopmental ailment which affects the social and communication skills of children. Most of the kids diagnosed with ASD mainly face challenges in terms of communication, with decreased to no verbal interaction. For years physicians and scientists have striven to determine the causes of this disorder and possible treatment solutions of ASD. However, in spite of the technological advancement and extensive research in this field, the exact reasons behind this disorder are yet to be found.
In their quest to find novel ways of treating ASD, researchers came across alternate options for treatment for individuals diagnosed with this ailment. One such off-label treatment method is known as Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy.
What Is Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy?
The hyperbaric oxygen therapy, also known as the HBOT, is not a recent discovery and has been used as a therapeutic recourse for a long time to treat decompression sickness in deep-sea divers. This treatment modality was first used in the 1930s’ by Behnke and Shaw, where the deep-sea divers suffering from decompression illness were placed inside the hyperbaric chamber for treatment.
However, with the passage of time, physicians have adopted HBOT as a treatment modality for various other health conditions. Till date, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved 16 health conditions which can use HBOT for treatment. Unfortunately, as of yet, ASD has not been included in the list of HBOT-approved health conditions.
Nevertheless, it has become quite a popular alternative in the autistic community, with more parents and caregivers opting for this mode of treatment. The hyperbaric oxygen therapy is conducted inside a sealed compartment called the hyperbaric chamber, which is then filled with unadulterated oxygen with a purity percentage ranging from 21 to 100 percent, depending on the severity of the condition and the doctor’s directions. The patient is then placed in the chamber where he/she inhales pure oxygen. HBOT sessions can be 45 minutes, 60 minutes, or 90 minutes long and are conducted at an air pressure greater than 1 atmosphere absolute.
Due to the increased air pressure, the patient’s body fluid such as blood plasma absorbs the pure oxygen to deliver it to the damaged tissues where the blood circulation is either hampered or limited. The unadulterated oxygen boosts the natural healing capabilities of the body and helps in treating a number of health conditions, including Autism.
How Does HBOT and Hyperbaric Chamber Benefit Children with Autism?
To understand how HBOT helps in countering autism, it is important to understand that a set of common fundamental health issues plague all autistic children. A significant improvement in health, behaviour, and communication has been noticed in autistic individuals once these health issues were taken care of. Here, we learn about the different ailments and how it can be countered through HBOT.
Hyperbaric Chamber Counters Cerebral Hypoperfusion:
After a thorough review of the medical literature dealing with autism and HBOT, a 2007 scientific study concluded that 86 percent of the autistic individuals suffered from cerebral hypoperfusion. In layman terms, it can be described as decreased blood flow in the brain, leading to oxygen deficiency in that area. The pure oxygen delivered inside the hyperbaric chamber at greater air pressure has been found to counter hypoxia (deficiency of oxygen in tissues) in the brain caused due to hypoperfusion. Since quite a number of autistic children suffer from at least a mild form of cerebral hypoperfusion, it can lead to hypoxia in the brain. Multiple SPECT scans which found relative hypoxia in the brain due to cerebral hypoperfusion showed that the health condition improved after the patient underwent a few sessions of HBO therapy inside the hyperbaric chamber.
Neuroinflammation and HBO Therapy:
A 2006 study claimed that apart from cerebral hypoperfusion, autism is also characterized by neuroinflammation. In 2005, the John Hopkins University published evidence of the presence of neuroinflammation in autistic children after conducting an autopsy. Furthermore, elements of neuroinflammation were also found in the cerebrospinal fluid of living autistic patients. While a number of therapies have been used to treat this health condition in autistic children, HBOT was found to be the most effective of all. Various studies tested HBOT on animals and discovered that the treatment technique exhibited potent anti-inflammatory properties in tissues, thus curbing neuroinflammation.
HBOT Lowers Oxidative Stress:
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy conducted through a hyperbaric chamber was also found effective in reducing oxidative stress in autistic children. Researchers looking into the benefits of HBOT found that the therapy was successful in lowering the oxidative stress levels in children with autism, without raising the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS). The oxidative stress in autistic children can reduce significantly if the patient is exposed to pure oxygen inside the hyperbaric chamber at an air pressure of less than 2.0 ATM.
HBOT Boosts Mitochondrial Function:
As stated previously, cerebral hypoperfusion and inflammation are common health conditions found in most autistic children. Furthermore, it has been discovered that hypoxia, caused by cerebral hypoperfusion, can be responsible for impairing mitochondrial function. Researchers discovered that approximately only 0.3 percent of the inhaled oxygen successfully reached the mitochondria of autistic individuals, resulting in the impairment of mitochondrial function. Therefore, increasing the amount and purity of oxygen through HBOT can help in improving mitochondrial function in autistic children.
The positive results of HBOT and hyperbaric chamber on autism has propelled this alternative treatment mechanism towards popularity in the autistic community. Parents of autistic children and caregivers view HBOT as a safe treatment modality and are renting or buying hyperbaric chambers of their own to continue the therapy within the confines of their homes.