CHAPEL HILL – UNC is doing its part in a global study on a potential new treatment for autism.
UNC ASPIRE Program clinical research manager Cheryl Alderman says the study will look at how an experimental drug known as memantine affects the symptoms of autism spectrum disorders—and researchers have already begun enrolling patients.
“The first part of the study, they’ll receive open-label medication,” she says, “(and) if they have a positive response or no response, they’ll be randomized into a separate study where they may get active medication or a placebo…(then) if the participant does not do well, they can go straight back into an open-label phase.”
UNC’s ASPIRE program, which is orchestrating the university’s involvement in the project, is dedicated to doing research on children and adolescents who are suspected to have an autism-related disorder. The study will take place at more than 80 worldwide sites; UNC-Chapel Hill is the only one in North Carolina.
Alderman says autism-related disorders fall on a spectrum, with varying degrees of severity.
“The symptoms that are common to most autism spectrum disorders are deficits in social interaction, deficits in language and communication, (and) repetitive behaviors and restrictive interests,” she says. “The severity of the deficits in those three core areas help determine (the) specific diagnosis.”
Autism spectrum disorders have received increased media attention over the past month, after some reports suggested that the gunman in the Sandy Hook tragedy might have been suffering from one—but Alderman says no evidence exists to link autism spectrum disorders to violent behavior.
“Just because someone has a mental health diagnosis, (that) does not make them more prone to violence,” she says. “It might make them more prone to certain types of behaviors, but just because someone has an autism-spectrum diagnosis, (that) does not automatically assume that they’re going to be violent or have the capacity to do that.”
And licensed psychologist Dr. Barbara Low-Greenlee says while school shooters and autism patients might share certain characteristics, violent tendencies isn’t necessarily among them.
“One of the characteristics of school shooters can be poor social skills,” she says, “but when you really look through the predictors, the truth is there are many people with many predictors that will never be a school shooter…
“Autism truly has nothing to do with a propensity towards being a school shooter.”
Researchers will be enrolling patients in the study until March. The first phase is expected to run for about 48 weeks.