The use of lasers to treat challenges associated with autism—it sounds like something from a Star Trek show. But then again, many of the things we saw in Star Trek have
So why not healing lasers?
Effects of low-level laser therapy
In a study by Gerry Leisman et al. from 2018, autistic participants received eight 5-minute procedures of low-level laser treatment administered to the base of the skull and temporal areas across a 4-week period. The researchers found that the following aspects improved:Effects of Low-Level Laser Therapy in Autism Spectrum Disorder (Leisman et al., 2018)
- Lethargy/social withdrawal
- Stereotypic behaviour
- Inappropriate speech*
*This seems to be a judgment, and the notion of noncompliance I find highly questionable as well.
According to the research, these improvements remained 6 months later. It also seems likely that the improvements seen will lead to other improvements not accounted for in the study, and create various positive feedback loops. For example, improvements in irritability and social withdrawal can make an autistic person (or anyone, really) less anxious in general, resulting in a better quality of life.
The study was designed to treat autistic children with the 640nm Erchonia Spectrum Laser as the active device or a 640nm LED or light emitting diode as a placebo device, which had the same power output. FDA input was obtained prior to clinical trial and implemented into the protocol.Quadruple-Blind laser study proves success in treating Autism in children and adolescents | Erchonia
The clinical trial was a quadruple-blind (Participant, Care Provider, Investigator, and Outcome Assessor), randomized, placebo-controlled, and crossover clinical trial. Dr. Morales-Quezada, Associate Research Director at Spaulding-Labushagne Neuromodulation, said the following about the study:Quadruple-Blind laser study proves success in treating Autism in children and adolescents | Erchonia
This is a well-designed trial that shows evidence supporting the use of Low Level Laser Therapy in children and adolescents with autism.
Moreover, the technique proved to be safe and well tolerated by the study participants. The active intervention showed to be more effective than the placebo (sham) device in treating symptoms of autistic disorder, and this statistically significant treatment effect was observed for all clinical outcomes, by the end of the intervention period and after the 6 months follow-up. This evidence offers a new treatment option to be considered for children and adolescents with autism.
Steven Shanks, President of Erchonia stated:Quadruple-Blind laser study proves success in treating Autism in children and adolescents | Erchonia
This study from a scientific perspective is one of the most stringent ways to perform a clinical trial. The original placebo patients have now acted as their own control group. The LED that was used as a placebo showed no results even though we used the same wavelength and power output.
The research looks promising, but one thing to note is that there seems to be a minor conflation in the research. That is to say, I think some of the behaviors that the study looked at are not characteristic of autism per se, but co-occurring alexithymia.
For instance, research suggests that low frequency of social interactions (which I presume to be associated with social withdrawal) seen in autistic people probably isn’t due to autism, but alexithymia.Alexithymia – not autism – is associated with frequency of social interactions in adults (Lerner et al., 2019) But of course, social withdrawal can result from several different factors, including a decrease in prosocial interactions (the enjoyment of having kind, reciprocal relationships) and low sociability (the enjoyment of engaging in group interactions). And as it turns out, prosocial interactions are negatively influenced by alexithymia more so than autism; and sociability is negatively influenced by both autism and alexithymia, but more so by autism.Common and Distinct Impacts of Autistic Traits and Alexithymia on Social Reward, Foulkes et al., 2005 For more information on alexithymia, read the post below.
So the behaviors the study looked at are not exclusively autistic behaviors, nor does the treatment strictly speaking treat autism. Instead, it could be a promising treatment for challenges associated with both autism and alexithymia.