There are currently few clinical options for supporting social communication and improving mental health for autistic young people.

We are recruiting volunteer participants for the first large-scale clinical trial to test whether transcranial magnetic stimulation – a painless, non-invasive treatment already widely used to treat depression – can be effective in improving these young people’s quality of life.

Continuum of Care

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Lifecourse

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Autistic young people need more mental health support

The brains of people on the autism spectrum develop and work differently to the brains of people who aren’t on the spectrum. Autistic people can have difficulty with social interaction and communication with non-autistic people. They can experience restrictive and repetitive behaviours.

Some teenagers and young adults feel this creates barriers to their education, employment and community participation. As a result, they tend to experience extremely poor mental health, for example anxiety or depression.

Yet there is little support available. Most current clinical interventions target much younger children. We urgently need to develop new interventions to help these adolescents and young adults.

Safely stimulating the brain from the outside 

Several prior studies suggest that Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) could help people on the autism spectrum who report problems with social communication.

TMS is currently widely used both in Australia and overseas to treat people with depression for whom other treatment options haven’t been successful.

TMS is a painless, non-invasive treatment. In TMS, a magnetic coil is placed outside a person’s head. An electric current passed into the coil generates a magnetic field that stimulates specific regions of the brain. As this happens, most people say they feel a painless tapping sensation.

Most patients have no side effects from TMS apart from scalp twitching and rare headaches. There is an extremely low risk of seizure. The risk is assessed carefully for each patient before treatment.

Ours is the first large-scale clinical trial to test whether TMS is effective for improving social communication but also mental health, quality of life and social participation for autistic young people.

We listen to the autism community

We recognise that some people have strong views about interventions for autism.

We are pursuing this project to give young people on the autism spectrum a potential option to reduce their social difficulties. Participants in this clinical trial are all volunteers aged 14–40.

The research team receives advice from a community advisory group. In that group are individuals on the autism spectrum, parents with an autistic child, and senior members of autism advocacy groups.

How the clinical trial works

People who decide (and are eligible) to participate in our clinical trial will receive a four-week course of TMS, involving 20 three-minute sessions. We will be stimulating a brain region called the temporoparietal junction, a part of the brain involved in social understanding and communication.

We record participants’ social communication and mental health using a series of assessments that take place before and after the four-week period of treatments. The results are compared to a group who receive a placebo instead. Neither the participants nor the researchers conducting the assessments know whether the participant is receiving a placebo.

On completion of the trial, we give participants who received the placebo the option to undergo the full TMS protocol.

This is an Australia-wide clinical trial with test sites in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth. Trial recruitment is ongoing in 2022. You can register your interest to take part in the trial.

The project is scheduled to be completed in late 2024.

Meet the team

This project is conducted as part of Deakin University’s SEED Lifespan Social Neurosciences theme.

SEED conducts world-leading research on social development and its origins in early emotional life. The Social Neurosciences theme explores the use of cutting-edge, non-invasive techniques for accurately measuring the structure and function of the human social-emotional brain.

The project is led by Professor Peter Enticott with a group of 10 Chief Investigators, 12 Associate Investigators and around 20 support staff around Australia at:

  • Monash University
  • University of Queensland
  • Herston Imaging Research Facility (MNHHS)
  • Children’s Health Queensland Hospital and Health Service
  • University of Sydney
  • University of Adelaide
  • South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute
  • University of Western Australia
  • Telethon Kids Institute
  • Murdoch University
  • SKG Radiology

The project is funded by the Medical Research Future Fund.