Highlight on Health Concerns: Weight Management

This blog post was submitted by the ASPIRE Research Team at
the UNC School of Medicine.

Approved treatments for autism

Although most readers of this blog will already know, it is still important to note that autism is now considered common. Recent estimates indicate a prevalence of between 1 in every 110 to 1 in every 38 individuals. Luckily, funding for research focused on the treatment of autism has been a priority of the US Congress, the National Institutes of Health and advocacy groups. This funding has been instrumental in conducting rigorous controlled trials of several psychiatric medications. However, only two medications have been approved by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) to treat irritable and disruptive behaviors in children with autism. These two drugs are Risperdal® (risperidone) and Abilify® (aripiprazole). These drugs are in a class of medications called antipsychotics. Although these are the only two drugs officially approved by the FDA, it is common practice for physicians to prescribe other similar medications such as Geodon® (ziprazidone), Seroquel® (quetiapine) and Zyprexa® (olanzapine).

What has the research told us about these medicines (antipsychotics)?

Approximately 30% of individuals with autism are treated with antipsychotics, with greater rates of treatment during adolescence. The truth of the matter is that these medicines are commonly prescribed because they are very effective in managing symptoms such as irritability, mood swings, aggression and other aspects of behavior. Research has also told us that individuals with disabilities have higher rates of overweight and obesity than individuals without disabilities in both pediatric and adult populations. This is particularly striking because of evidence that antipsychotic medications are associated with very dramatic weight gain in youth. For instance, a recent study of more than 300 youth treated with antipsychotics for the first time found mean increases in weight between 18 to 10 pounds over the first 11 weeks of treatment. There is also evidence that weight gain continues although at a somewhat slower rate with extended treatment. Several studies have also identified increased rates of high cholesterol and triglycerides, high insulin levels in the blood, and elevated liver enzymes in youth treated with antipsychotics.

Bottom line

Although these types of medicines are considered appropriate for children and adolescents, they do not come without risks of side effects. One of the biggest risks of taking these medicines is weight gain. Weight gain in children and adolescents can lead to major problems later on in life. Some of the common problems are high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.

What is being done now?

Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are currently conducting a research study to address these issues. Dr. Linmarie Sikich and her team are currently looking at 3 different strategies to reduce weight gain that is associated with these types of medicines. They are looking for participants who are willing to be in the study for 7 months and come to UNC Hospitals several times. Study related psychiatric care is provided by doctors who specialize in these types of illness and is provided at no cost to the participant or his/her insurance company. In fact, compensation for time will be provided.

If you are interested in finding out more information about this research study, please contact the ASPIRE Research Team by calling us at 1-800-708-0048 or email us at aspire@unc.edu.

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