The commonly prescribed antidepressant citalopram is ineffective in treating obsessive features of autism spectrum disorder in children, reveals a study.
Autism spectrum disorder involves spinning, rocking, and repetitive behavior.
While 40 percent of autistic children swallow a daily dose of an antidepressant, the study could serve to reduce the number of antidepressant prescriptions written for children with autism and similar conditions on the autism spectrum.
Citalopram is in a class of antidepressant medicines called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
The multi-center study was conducted at The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in collaboration with five other centers throughout the country.
"Parents of children with autism spectrum disorders face an enormous number of treatment options, not all of which are research based. Studies like this help us to better understand which treatments are likely to be beneficial and safe," said Dr. Thomas R. Insel, Director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
The Feinstein Institute's Dr. Joel D. Bregman, said that the initial use of antidepressants grew out of a belief that some of the repetitive behaviors were similar to those seen among people with obsessive compulsive disorder.
He added: "We can't rely on apparent similarities to other conditions and clinical experiences to guide our treatment strategies. This was a large double-blind clinical trial that showed that this class of medicine is not effective in reducing these behaviors. These types of studies are essential."
For the study, the researchers followed 149 children between the ages of five and 17. Almost 50 percent of them were given a placebo dose, while the rest received the antidepressant.
The children were tested repeatedly over the 12-week study period.
The researchers defined a positive response by improvement on a number of behavioral measurements.
"There was no significant difference in the rate of positive response on these tests. Results of the trial do not support the use of citalopram for the treatment of repetitive behavior in children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder," concluded the scientists.
In the study, one in three children in both groups, 32.9 percent of those treated with citalopram and 34.2 percent of those treated with placebo, were reported to have fewer or less severe symptoms.
The study has been published in the Archives of General Psychiatry.