CHAPEL HILL -- Parents will go to great lengths to help children with illnesses, including trying the latest well-publicized treatments regardless of whether they've been proven effective. But if a therapy sounds too good to be true, it usually is.
A new study appearing in the Dec. 9 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine offers a prime example. Contrary to what early publicity suggested, North Carolina researchers found no evidence that a single dose of the synthetic human hormone secretin benefited children with autism, an often severe developmental disorder.
In a well-controlled study of 60 children, half of whom received synthetic secretin and half of whom received an inactive salt solution, scientists could tell no difference between the groups when the study ended. The investigation was double-blind, meaning that neither clinicians nor parents knew which of the two treatments the children received until evaluations were complete.
"Following news reports, many parents contacted us wanting to have their children treated with secretin," said developmental pediatrician Dr. Adrian Sandler. "We felt the responsible thing to do was to enroll these children in a carefully controlled and well-designed study first.
"Some individuals in both groups showed a variety of positive responses in terms of symptoms and associated behaviors," he said. "But because there were no overall group differences, the study points to a placebo effect. Families of children with autism were excited and expected some kind of treatment benefit, but we saw no benefit."
Sandler is medical director of the Olson Huff Center for Child Development at Thoms Rehabilitation
Hospital in Asheville, N.C., and clinical associate professor of pediatrics at the University of North
Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine. He conducted the study with Dr. James W. Bodfish,
associate director of the Human Development Research and Training Institut
Contact: David Williamson
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill