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Clinical Study to Control Medication-Associated Weight Gain

Guest post by Micah Mabe, research coordinator for the ASPIRE research program of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Let me open this blog by introducing you to ASPIRE, a research program for children and adolescents with autism or psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia. It is led by child and adolescent psychiatrist Linmarie Sikich, MD. We strive to provide compassionate and innovative care for our patients, while conducting research to improve treatments. Our team includes psychiatrists, neuropsychologists, research coordinators and a social worker.

Today, I appreciate the opportunity to tell you about a clinical study we’re conducting to develop strategies that help young people manage weight gain associated with the use of antipsychotic medications.

Overall, around 30 percent of individuals with autism are taking some type of antipsychotic medicine. These rates tend to peak during adolescence.

As many readers of this blog know, we currently lack medications for treating autism’s core symptoms. We have two FDA-approved medications for treating irritability and disruptive behaviors in children with autism. These are Risperdal (risperidone) and Abilify (aripiprazole). Both belong to the class of medications called antipsychotics. Commonly, physicians also turn to other antipsychotic medications when trying to ease challenging autism-related behaviors and symptoms such as aggression, mood swings and irritability. 

Research has also told us that individuals with disabilities such as autism have high rates of obesity. Making the matter worse, weight gain is one of the most common side effects of antipsychotic medicines.

For instance, a recent study of more than 300 patients starting antipsychotic medicines showed an average weight gain of 10 to 18 pounds over the first 11 weeks of treatment. This came with worrisome increases in cholesterol, triglycerides, insulin and liver enzymes in children.

Bottom line: Though antipsychotic medicines can be of great help to children and adolescents with autism, they come with risk. Obesity may be one of the biggest dangers in terms of effect on overall health. Weight gain in children and adolescents can lead to major problems later on in life. These include heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.

For these reasons, we are conducting a study of strategies to reduce the weight gain associated with the use of these medicines. Under Dr. Sikich’s guidance, our team is currently looking at three different strategies that involve changing medications and/or adding a diabetes medicine. (More information about the trial can be found here.)

We are looking for participants with autism who are currently taking antipsychotic medications. Participation will span 7 months and include several visits to a University of North Carolina medical center. As part of the study, participants will receive psychiatric care provided by doctors who specialize in disorders such as autism. These consultations and associated medicines will be provided at no cost to participants or their health insurers. We will also provide compensation for time and reimburse travel costs.

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

Editor’s note: Please also see Autism Speaks “Participant’s Guide to Autism Research,” available for free download here. You can learn about other autism research studies recruiting families and individuals here