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The precise causes of autism aren’t fully understood, but experts agree that a combination of genetic, developmental, and environmental factors contribute to risk of developing the disorder. Imbalances in certain brain neurotransmitters are a focus of research as well, with the goal being to identify and correct these brain chemistry abnormalities in children with autism allowing for normal relationship development and social functioning.
NAC may help normalize brain chemistry, but it is not known if more normal brain chemistry translates into more desirable behaviors. To study this question, researchers enrolled 33 children (ages three to eleven years) with autism spectrum disorder into a 12-week study. Half the children were randomly selected to take NAC, and half received a placebo.
The children in the NAC group were given 900 mg once daily for four weeks, followed by 900 mg twice daily for four weeks. During the final four weeks, 900 mg of NAC was given three times per day. The children’s behavior was tracked using the Aberrant Behavior Checklist, which is a standardized tool for assessing problem behavior in subjects with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
At the end of 12 weeks, the children in the NAC group had significant improvements in their Aberrant Behavior Checklist scores for irritability compared with children in the placebo group. There were no significant differences in side effects between the NAC and placebo groups.
People with autism spectrum disorders are reported to be more irritable than other people, and this study suggests that the dietary supplement N-acetyl cysteine may lessen irritability in children with the disorder. The study was small, so it makes sense to proceed with caution if you would like your child to try NAC. Keep the following in mind before doing so:
(Biol Psychiatry 2012;71:956–61)