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 autistic people, 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. 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 autistic people in the mid-1980s in the United States.
What is the idea behind naltrexone treatment?
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 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, they should be monitored by a specialist medical practitioner like a psychiatrist. Your child needs regular appointments with this professional.
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. Some research has shown that naltrexone doesn’t improve the core characteristics of autism.
Who practises this treatment?
Parent education, training, support and involvement
If your child is prescribed naltrexone, 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.
There are many therapies for autism. They range from those based on behaviour and development to those based on medicine or alternative therapy. Our article on types of interventions for autistic children takes you through the main therapies, so you can better understand your child’s options.