(Great Neck, N.Y. - June 12, 2009) — A drug commonly given to children with autism to reduce repetitive behaviors is ineffective compared to placebo, and in some children may actually increase repetitive behaviors. The finding comes from the largest study of autistic children to date, conducted at six academic medical centers, and reported in the June 29, 2009 issue of Archives of General Psychiatry.
“What we found, much to our surprise, is that there was no significant difference in positive response between kids treated with citalopram and kids who received the placebo. And the kids treated with citalopram tended to have more side effects,” said NARSAD 2000 Young Investigator Linmarie Sikich, M.D., a co-author of the study and associate professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine. “I cannot emphasize this enough: This was not at all what we expected to see,” she said.
Citalopram, sold under the brand name Celexa, is one of a class of antidepressant drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, which are the most frequently used medications for children with autism. They are also used to treat depression, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder in both adults and children. Before this study, there was very little scientific evidence to support the use of SSRIs in children with autism, but some preliminary studies showed promising results for citalopram, Dr. Sikich said.
Hypothesizing that citalopram would improve the overall functioning of autistic children and adolescents by reducing repetitive behavior, Dr. Sikich and colleagues recruited 149 children ages 5 to 17 to take part in the 12-week trial, during which 73 received daily doses of liquid citalopram, while 76 received daily doses of liquid placebo. Researchers measured the children’s response to treatment using the Clinical Global Impression-Improvement scale (CGI-I). They also recorded measures of repetitive behavior and side effects.
At the end of the trial, some children in both groups showed a positive response.