A new study conducted on animal models at Tel Aviv University has demonstrated that hyperbaric oxygenation has a positive impact on the social abilities of patients with autism. It also helps reduce inflammation and improves brain function. The research findings were published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences.

During the study, using treatment in a hyperbaric chamber, significant improvement in social skills and changes in the brain, particularly a reduction in inflammation associated with autism, were observed. The study was conducted by doctoral candidate Inbar Fischer and Dr. Boaz Barak from the School of Neurology at Tel Aviv University.

Scientists explain that hyperbaric oxygenation is already being used in the treatment of various conditions, including in Israel (recently, a department offering this treatment was opened at Ichilov Medical Center). In recent years, there has been increasing scientific evidence that unique hyperbaric therapy protocols help improve brain blood flow, increase oxygen levels, and consequently enhance brain function.

Autism has numerous and diverse medical causes, ultimately resulting in the autistic spectrum as we know it. Currently, around 20% of autism cases are attributed to genetic causes, specifically gene-related damage. However, these genetic causes do not necessarily have to be inherited from parents. Despite the multiple causes leading to autism, the wide range of behavioral issues still falls under the umbrella term “autism,” and the medications and therapeutic methods used are not necessarily directly related to the underlying pathology.

In the preliminary stage of the study, Professor Shai Efrati, the head of the Hyperbaric Medicine Center at Assaf Harofeh Medical Center and a lecturer at the School of Neurology at Tel Aviv University, treated a girl with a mutation in the SHANK3 gene, known to be associated with autism. The treatment using the hyperbaric chamber resulted in significant improvement in her social skills and brain function.

In the next stage of the research, a group of scientists led by Professor Barak sought to understand how the hyperbaric chamber treatment affected the brain itself. Adult animal models with the same genetic mutation as the girl (mutation in the SHANK3 gene) were used. The experiment involved a protocol of 40 one-hour procedures in the hyperbaric chamber over several weeks.

“We found that hyperbaric oxygenation treatment reduces inflammation in the brain and increases the expression of substances responsible for improving brain blood flow, oxygen supply, and brain function. Additionally, we observed a decrease in the number of microglia cells, immune system cells indicating an inflammatory state,” says Dr. Barak.

The researchers also wanted to determine whether these improvements in brain function translated into improvements in social behavior, which is impaired in autism. “To our surprise,” says Dr. Barak, “the results showed significant improvement in the social aspect of the animal models with autism that underwent treatment in the hyperbaric chamber compared to the control group animals exposed only to normal-pressure air without oxygen enrichment. The treated animal models exhibited increased social interest and preferred spending more time with other animals.”

Inbar Fischer concludes, “The mutation in our animal models is the same as the mutation in humans. Therefore, our study may have clinical implications for improving the pathological condition in autism resulting from this genetic mutation, and likely for autism caused by other factors as well. Since hyperbaric chamber treatment is a non-invasive procedure considered safe, the results of our work are encouraging and demonstrate the potential to improve brain function and social skills in patients with autism.”

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