What is naltrexone?

Naltrexone is a type of medication known as an opiate antagonist (or opioidergic agent). These medications ‘block’ cells in the brain that would 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 treatment for?

Naltrexone has traditionally been prescribed for people who are addicted to alcohol and opioid drugs like heroin. It’s also sometimes used to treat people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), particularly those with behaviour problems like self-harming.

What is naltrexone used for?

Opiate antagonist medications 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. In this way, receptors help signals to move along connections between brain cells.

It’s thought that by blocking specific receptors, opiate antagonists like naltrexone can reduce activity in certain parts of the brain.

Where does naltrexone treatment come from?

Naltrexone was originally used to treat heroin and alcohol dependence. It was first tested as a therapy for self-harming behaviour in people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the mid-1980s in the United States.

What is the idea behind naltrexone treatment?

Researchers have suggested a possible association between autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and a problem with opioid receptors in the brain.

These researchers believe that people with ASD 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 treatment involve?

Naltrexone treatment involves taking oral medication every day. The specific medication and dosage depends on people’s individual symptoms.

If your child is taking this medication, he should be monitored by a specialist medical practitioner like a psychiatrist. Your child needs regular appointments with this professional.

Cost considerations

The cost of naltrexone can vary depending on the dose and how often the drug is taken. This medication is covered by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS), but only as a treatment for alcoholism.

Does naltrexone treatment work?

This therapy has not yet been rated.

Who practises this treatment?

Psychiatrists, paediatricians and GPs can prescribe this medication.

Parent education, training, support and involvement

If your child is prescribed naltexone, you need to ensure your child takes the medication as required. You also need to monitor its effects and side effects, and arrange follow-up visits with your child’s health professional to review the medication plan.

Where can you find a practitioner?

Your GP, paediatrician or a child psychiatrist can prescribe this medication and give you information about its potential benefits and risks.

You can find a child psychiatrist by going to Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists – Find a psychiatrist.

You could also talk with your NDIA planner, NDIS early childhood partner or NDIS local area coordination partner, if you have one.

There are many treatments for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). They range from those based on behaviour and development to those based on medicine or alternative therapy. Our article on types of interventions for children with ASD takes you through the main treatments, so you can better understand your child’s options.