February 15, 2008

Melatonin tolerated well by children with autism: study

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Beth Malow, M.D.

Melatonin tolerated well by children with autism: study

Vanderbilt Sleep Disorders Center researchers are reporting that melatonin, an over-the-counter and relatively inexpensive dietary supplement taken for insomnia and jet lag, shows promise in treating children with autism who have difficulty falling asleep.

Beth Malow, M.D., associate professor of Neurology and Kennedy Center Investigator, and collaborators reviewed clinical data from Susan McGrew, M.D., associate professor of Pediatrics, that showed the melatonin was safe and well-tolerated in her patients.

The results are published in the February issue of the Journal of Child Neurology.

The study is the largest of its kind, looking at the medical records of 107 children with autism, ages 2 to 18, who had tried varying dosages of melatonin for insomnia.

Twenty-five percent of parents reported they no longer had sleep concerns after using melatonin, 60 percent of parents reported the sleep problems had improved, 13 percent still had major concerns and only 1 percent (one child) had worse symptoms.

Only three of the 107 children studied reported mild side effects.

“Although prospective trials will be needed to determine if melatonin is an effective sleep aid in this population, this study does support that it may be a reasonable treatment option in these children when administered under the care of a physician and combined with behavioral therapies for sleep,” Malow said.

Autism Speaks, in conjunction with the Dana Foundation, is contributing $100,000 over two years to a prospective study led by Malow and McGrew.

This study will follow how sleep patterns change in children with autism with the introduction of melatonin, as measured by parent reports and a method called actigraphy, which monitors sleep by tracking movements at night via a wristwatch-like device.

Although preliminary, so far all children completing the trial have had improved sleep, as well as improved daytime behavior, and parents report that they are coping better with their child's autism.

In addition to McGrew, Malow's collaborators include Karen Adkins, R.N., research nurse specialist and project manager; Wendy Stone, Ph.D., professor of Pediatrics and director of Vanderbilt's Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders; Lily Wang, Ph.D., assistant professor of Biostatistics; Suzanne Goldman, Ph.D., instructor in Neurology; and Courtney Burnette, Ph.D., assistant professor of Psychiatry.

For more information contact Karen Adkins at 936-1646 or e-mail autismsleepresearch@vanderbilt.edu.