Magnetic Resonance Therapy: Concerns on Research

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Every once in a while I hear about a new autism treatment that's revolutionary, exclusive, and of course, expensive. Sometimes they show promise, other times they seem so out there that I can't believe anyone is willing to believe they work. Recently a co-worker had forwarded on a link to a clinic in Huntington Beach, CA that works with Magnetic Resonance Therapy and applies this to the brain of the child with autism. As with every new therapy out there, I approached it with caution.

You are probably familiar with Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), which takes high voltage magnetic fields to identify iodine in the bloodstream, and is often used when imaging the brain or other soft tissue. Magnetic Resonance Therapy is the application of low voltage, targeted magnetic fields to parts of the body in order to affect a change. Specifically it's most commonly used in joints to grow cartilage. The therapy is considered secondary or supplemental medicine, and has yet to have full clinical trial success to prove it's effectiveness. After reading this, I began to really wonder, how would this even affect the brain?

I couldn't find a reference in Google Scholar searches for Magnetic Resonance Therapy and autism, which really worried me. But I did find an article on the Skepticblog that talked about Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation for Autism that specifically referenced this clinic. He talked about the warning signs of copyrighted therapies, unique knowledge of branches of science, etc. that are general warning signs in scams. But he did mention that some research had been done on magnetic stimulation for autism, and some of it could show promise.

So, good news! There's research out there, I just had to know the term to search. So, I ran a search for Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation and autism through Google Scholar. And the results were, well, sparse. There isn't a lot of research on magnetic field affects on the brain related to autism. What I did find was a little concerning:

  1. Disruption of the right temporoparietal junction with transcranial magnetic stimulation reduces the role of beliefs in moral judgments: Apparently frequent stimulation of the brain with magnetic fields can reduce the effect of beliefs in moral judgement.
  2. Effects of Low Frequency Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (rTMS) on Gamma Frequency Oscillations and Event-Related Potentials During Processing of Illusory Figures in Autism: So, apparently a low-frequency use of magnetic stimulation has shown, in this study done in 2008, that a significant improvement in a small sample of those with autism vs. those without in processing the world around them without picking up the "background noise" as well.
  3. Low-Frequency Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (rTMS) Affects Event-Related Potential Measures of Novelty Processing in Autism: Similar to the article above, and by the same group, also a small sample.
  4. Deep Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Associated With Improved Social Functioning in a Young Woman With an Autism Spectrum Disorder: This article references one person that has had a benefit from transcranial magnetic stimulation.

The verdict was pretty much the same across the board, Some benefits were found, but the sample size is pretty small and more research needs to be done to consider it safe for human trials. There's some other studies on the effect of transcranial magnetic stimulation and the brain that has been done in mice for migraines, mapping neural pathways, and the like, but human studies are few and far between that I could see (feel free to correct me if I'm wrong).

The point that I'm trying to make is that new research and "therapies" are often dangerous as they are not completely understood. One concern I often have within the autism community is that we are so focused on "cure" or "treat" that we don't often think about "safe". I'm sure that magnetic resonance therapy could have some testimonials that talk it up like nothing else, and they may even be genuine, but until I can have it confirmed that it's safe and completely effective, I'm not going to risk the health of my boys.