Can L-Carnitine Help Kids with Autism?

By Maylin Rodriguez-Paez, RN

Autism is devastating to families. Nothing is more heartbreaking than a child who is unable to communicate or express emotions with their parents. According to the CDC, about 1 in 88 in the U.S. has autism.1

Symptoms range from very mild to severe and often include difficulties with language and social skills.

Currently there is no standard treatment, and the cause of autism continues to elude scientists.

However, a recent study in Egypt showed that L-carnitine decreased the severity of autistic symptoms. Below we’ll take a look at the details and their implications.

Kids on L-Carnitine Showed Improved Behavior

Scientists enrolled children between the ages of 2 and 8 and gave them L-carnitine for a period of 6 months. Dosing was based on their body weight — 100 mg of L-carnitine per kilogram.

They used the Childhood Autism Rating Scale, or CARS for short, to measure the kids’ response to treatment. This is a standard research tool for autism research.

Children who took the L-carnitine had significant improvements in their CARS scores and behavior. In addition, the L-carnitine was well tolerated and no serious side effects were reported.2

More Studies Confirm the L-Carnitine / Autism Link

The Egyptian study isn’t the only one to find that L-carnitine can be beneficial. For example, a 2011 trial showed L-carnitine improved cognitive scores and muscle strength in autistic kids. Children were given 50 mg per kilogram of body weight.3

Also, scientists have found that some autistic boys have a genetic defect which codes for L-carnitine production.4 Kids with this abnormal gene are more likely to produce less carnitine, an effect which may be associated with autistic behavior.

So far, these studies have shown a potential link between autism and L-carnitine, but they haven’t answered the question as to why L-carnitine is helpful.

The answer, however, could have something to do with mitochondria.

L-Carnitine Enhances Mitochondrial Function

Genetics, environmental toxins, and vaccinations are the current leading theories of autism. However, new research is pointing toward the mitochondria — the “powerhouses” of the body’s cells.

The mitochondria are like little factories. Their function is to produce cell energy called ATP (adenosine triphosphate). Mitochondria are found in most of the cells in your body, especially your brain.

It’s important that your mitochondria function at their best, since lapses in cell energy production may lead to cellular dysfunction and death.

Scientists have actually found mitochondrial defects5 and lower levels of carnitine in autistic kids.6 Low blood levels of carnitine are not a good thing, since carnitine transports fats into your mitochondria where they’re used as an energy source.

Just like a factory, when your cells are short on raw materials, production is halted. So, if cell energy drops, cell function is compromised.

Should Your Child Take an L-Carnitine Supplement?

Before you make this decision it’s probably best to discuss this with your child’s doctor. But based on the research, the answer certainly could be a resounding “yes.”

Does autism have to be so devastating? We certainly hope not. Perhaps new findings such as this will lead us to much-needed answers and better, safe solutions sooner than later.

References:

  1. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/Features/CountingAutism/ Accessed September 15th.
  2. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders. 2013 Jan-Mar;7(1)2013:159–166.
  3. Med Sci Monit. 2011 Jun;17(6):PI15-23.
  4. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 May 22;109(21):7974-81. Epub 2012 May 7.
  5. Curr Genomics. 2011 Aug;12(5):322-32.
  6. J Autism Dev Disord. 2004 Dec;34(6):615-23.

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