What is naltrexone?
Naltrexone is a type of medicine known as an opiate antagonist (or opioidergic agent). These medicines ‘block’ cells in the brain that normally respond to chemicals called opiates. Opiates often give people a big ‘high’ or a ‘rush’ and boost their feelings of wellbeing. These chemicals can be very addictive.
Who is naltrexone therapy for?
Naltrexone has traditionally been prescribed for people who are addicted to alcohol and opioid drugs like heroin. It’s also sometimes prescribed for autistic people with self-harming behaviour.
What is naltrexone used for?
Opiate antagonist medicines are used to block receptors in the brain.
Receptors are like chemical antennae that sit on the outside of each brain cell and pick up specific signals. Receptors help signals to move along connections between brain cells.
By blocking specific receptors, opiate antagonists like naltrexone can reduce activity in certain parts of the brain.
Where does naltrexone therapy come from?
Naltrexone was originally used to treat heroin and alcohol dependence. It was first tested as a therapy for self-harming behaviour in autistic people in the mid-1980s in the United States.
What is the idea behind naltrexone therapy for autistic people?
Researchers have suggested a possible association between autism and a problem with opioid receptors in the brain.
These researchers believe that autistic people who hurt themselves feel a ‘rush’ because their bodies release beta-endorphins during the self-harming behaviour. Beta-endorphins bind to opioid receptors in the brain.
Supporters of this therapy believe that blocking these receptors with naltrexone removes the ‘rush’, which makes it easier for people to stop the behaviour.
What does naltrexone therapy involve?
Naltrexone therapy involves taking oral medicine every day. The specific medicine and dosage depends on people’s individual needs.
If your child is taking naltrexone, they should be monitored by a psychiatrist or other specialist doctor. Your child needs regular appointments with this professional.
Does naltrexone therapy help autistic children?
This therapy has not yet been rated. Some research has shown that naltrexone doesn’t improve the core characteristics of autism.
Who practises this therapy?
Where can you find a practitioner?
Your GP, paediatrician or a child psychiatrist can prescribe this medicine and give you information about its benefits and risks.
You can find psychiatrists at Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists – Find a psychiatrist.
Parent education, training, support and involvement
If your child is prescribed naltrexone, you need to ensure your child takes the medicine as prescribed. You also need to monitor its effects and side effects and arrange follow-up visits with your child’s health professional to review the medicine plan.
The cost of naltrexone can vary depending on the dose and how often the medicine is taken. This medicine is covered by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) but only as a treatment for alcoholism.
Therapies and supports for autistic children range from behaviour therapies and developmental approaches to medicines and alternative therapies. When you understand the main types of therapies and supports for autistic children, it’ll be easier to work out the approach that will best suit your child.