New study uses alcoholism treatment for Fragile X

Zachary Hammonds

A cutting-edge treatment for patients with the most common cause of autism is happening at IU Health.

It is a novel idea conceived by a Riley doctor after reading through medical literature. The idea is to treat patients diagnosed with Fragile X with a drug used to treat alcoholics.

Sherry VanDyke plays a game of cards with her 22-year-old son, Zachary Hammonds. It's a peaceful scene, but it's something new and novel for mother and son.

"As soon as I would get up he would just start in on me - be very verbally abusive and he would try to hit me and grab me and things like that and as soon as I would come home at night it would be the same way," said VanDyke.

Zachary was diagnosed with Fragile X when he was two. It's genetic and the most common cause of autism.

"He went to Howe and he was the homecoming prince. He went to his senior prom. He danced all evening," said VanDyke. "He knows everybody. But at home he had that reaction."

The escalating rage in recent years, Sherry VanDyke believed, was in response to increasing frustration with communicating.

"You get mad. A normal person knows when then their level is to stop. You know you get to that point and you go, oh, I've gone too far. With him, he would go too far and he didn't know how to stop," she said.

The family feared Zach would no longer be able to stay at home until they tried a new approach with a drug called acamprosate. It is FDA-approved to treat alcoholism.

Dr. Craig Erickson, chief at IU Health Riley Hospital for Children's Christian Sarkine Autism Treatment Center, had the idea from reading medical literature.

"Chronic alcohol use causes a brain injury with certain chemical systems in the brain similar to the chemical abnormalities in Fragile X animal models, so in that sense the deficits show some potential overlap," he said.

"Once he started taking the medication we saw a complete change. It was like night and day," said VanDyke.

Zachary, whose family says has a photographic memory and uncanny ability to look ahead, is one of twenty adults and children in the trial. Doctors say the clinical improvements are promising and now they are expanding the trial to include more patients.

"It's really a new area with new potential and the other thing that gives hope is just that it's well tolerated," said Dr. Erickson.

Zachery is very aware of the change. "The medicine helps me...helps my problems," he said.

It means Zachary won't be moving out anytime soon, and that his public and private persona are the same.

IU Health is now expanding the study and is currently enrolling adult and pediatric patients diagnosed with Fragile X and autism in this trial. If you would like to learn more you can call 317-948-9766.