Sherri Ferguson sits in SFU's hyperbaric chamber, which will be used in clinical trials investigating the efficacy of Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy in treating autism.

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New funding spurs autism and Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy research at SFU

December 04, 2014
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By Diane Luckow

Sherri Ferguson, director of SFU's Environmental Medicine and Physiology Unit (EMPU)—Canada’s only civilian hypo/hyperbaric research chamber—is busy with renovations in preparation for new research projects that include investigations into whether Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT) can be used to treat autism.

Earlier this month, SFU received a $500,000 commitment from Central City Brewing and Distillery president Darryl Frost and his wife Lee, to support autism research in the EMPU.

The funds will establish the Callum Frost Professorship in Translational Research in Autism, named for the Frosts’ son, who was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) two years ago at aged three.

Diagnosed with Pervasive Development Disorder, a type of autism, Callum’s behaviour included tantrums, self-beating, aggressiveness and anxiety, but after undergoing HBOT he experienced significant benefits.

“He was an extremely low-functioning child, unable to do anything for himself, including feeding, dressing and communicating,” says Lee Frost. “However, with dietary changes and intense hyperbaric therapy he is now talking in sentences and is more compliant. He no longer has sensory issues or shows any of the behaviours that once engulfed him, and attends kindergarten with an aid. He is now toilet-trained, can feed and dress himself and has more confidence than his twin brother. Our son is coming back to us fast and furious.”

Convinced that HBOT was the key to Callum’s recovery, the Frosts began planning how they could help other families, and connected with Ferguson and Peter Ruben, associate dean for research in the Faculty of Science.

Together, they developed the plan for establishing the professorship.

Scientists uncertain about HBOT’s efficacy

HBOT is a treatment where the individual enters a pressure chamber and breathes 100 per cent oxygen, which saturates tissues 10 times greater than at normal pressure.

“We don't know how HBOT may help autism and other brain disorders,” says Ruben, a professor of biomedical physiology and kinesiology.

“What we do know is that HBOT increases the oxygen circulating in the blood stream and, therefore, the amount of oxygen reaching the brain. So we can speculate that increasing oxygen supply to the brain may literally energize cells, and pathways of cells, that are damaged or functioning at a low level of metabolic activity.” 

Ferguson says that while there have been some clinical studies published on the effectiveness of hyperbaric oxygen to improve symptoms of ASD, these studies have been subjective and have lacked rigorous scientific methodology.

She says SFU’s EMPU, coupled with the University’s Magnetoencephalography (MEG) machine, the most advanced brain-imaging equipment in B.C., affords the ideal opportunity to conduct a rigorous, scientifically controlled study. It will objectively determine whether, and if so how, hyperbaric oxygen improves brain function in individuals with ASD.

Using MEG imaging, scientists can measure brainwave oscillations and changes in brain network connectivity. This information could also help scientists to predict which individuals would benefit most from HBOT.

Renovating the EMPU

The EMPU resembles two Tic Tacs stacked on top of each other. The upper chamber is dry and simulates atmospheric conditions from 20 miles above sea level to 1,000 feet below sea level. The lower wet dive-simulation chamber holds more than 2,500 gallons of fresh water and can accommodate a diver and safety attendant.

Until now, the EMPU has primarily been used to study physiological conditions associated with deep-sea diving and flying. These include nitrogen narcosis, which causes divers to become euphoric and “drunk-like”; and high-altitude hypoxia, or oxygen deprivation that pilots can experience.

The EMPU is now undergoing renovations to achieve hospital-level accreditation. These include special flooring for maintaining infection control, and patient examining and waiting areas. Accreditation also requires protocols for patient confidentiality.

Ferguson hopes the EMPU can play an expanded role in clinical research not only for autism but also for traumatic brain injury, chronic pain and neuroplasticity in amputees.

Autism study to accept 40 participants

The planned autism study will accept up to 40 children and adults (some with autism and some without) and Ferguson says there are already a number of families interested in participating in this clinical trial.

“Realistically, however, the study won’t start until 2016,” she says.  “That’s how long it will take to acquire accreditation, obtain ethical approval and further funding, and design and implement a study of this size.”