Side effects were very mild, though the use of the drug does require periodic monitoring for potassium levels; one child in the study had low potassium levels.
Senior study author Yehezkel Ben-Ari, founder of the Institute of Neurobiology of the Mediterranean Sea in Bohars, France, said the authors believe that the improvement in symptoms is due to an effect on GABA caused by the drug.
One expert said the findings look promising.
"This is a very interesting study. The authors have taken a medication that's been on the back shelf for decades and, surprisingly, found a clinically significant benefit when used in children with autism, especially those on the milder end of the spectrum," noted Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York in New Hyde Park, N.Y.
"Children would need to be on this medication indefinitely, because their improvements deteriorate when the medication is stopped. And, we don't yet know if there are any long-term concerns," he said. "Hopefully, this study will be a catalyst to new research. We need to see additional studies before we can recommend this treatment widely, but since it's already FDA-approved, we should know more in just a few years."
To learn more about autism, visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
SOURCES: Yehezkel Ben-Ari, Ph.D., founder, Institute of Neurobiology of the Mediterranean Sea, Bohars, France; Andrew Adesman, M.D., chief, developmental and behaviora
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