Autism is an increasingly common medical condition that affects a child's ability to develop social and communication skills. The number of children who are diagnosed with autism has increased dramatically over the past 20 years. Although there are no medications that directly treat autism, medications are used to treat specific symptoms like hyperactivity, depression and changes in mood. Two recent studies suggest that the dietary supplement, carnitine, may help treat the illness itself.
Autism is a disorder of the development of social and communication skills. The exact cause(s) have not been discovered. There seems to be a genetic link, but genetics alone cannot explain the rapid increase in autism over the past few decades. In the 1980s, autism was diagnosed in one child per thousand. Recent studies suggest that the rate of autism is now one in 110. One reason for the increase may be that the criteria for the diagnosis of autism changed since the 1980s. However, environmental factors cannot be ruled out.
One theory about autism is that the mitochondria in the nerve cells are not functioning properly. Mitochondria are the power plants of the cells. They make the chemical energy that all cells need in order to function. Mitochondria not functioning properly can profoundly affect how the whole cell functions and develops. To this end, it has been theorized that carnitine may help mitochondrial function and may be beneficial for autism.
Carnitine is composed of two amino acids: lysine and methionine. It is required for the transport of fat from inside the cell into the mitochondria and it helps in the transformation of these fats into chemical energy. There is some evidence that carnitine is also useful for a number of medical conditions including heart disease and glucose control in patients with diabetes. Two recent studies have suggested that carnitine may reduce a number of the symptoms of autism.
In one study, published in Medical Science Monitor (2011), 30 participants diagnosed with autism were randomized to receive carnitine or placebos for three months. Significant improvements were seen in those taking the carnitine and these improvements correlated strongly with the levels of carnitine in the blood. The conclusions were that three months of daily carnitine therapy significantly improved several clinical measurements of autism.
In another medical study published in Molecular Psychology (2011), pooling data from many smaller studies, noted that there seems to be a strong correlation between autism and mitochondrial function. They also felt that the data for carnitine, coenzyme Q10 and B vitamins was positive and deserved additional study.
Dietary sources rich in carnitine include red meat, nuts, seeds and beans. Although there is yet no cure for autism, continuing research into various nontraditional approaches seems to be promising and safe. Overall, carnitine is safe, but I do not recommend starting it as a dietary supplement unless under the supervision of a physician familiar with its use.
• Patrick B. Massey, M.D., Ph.D is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine for the Alexian Brothers Hospital Network.