A quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

The Autism Research Review International is quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

Spring, 2020 | Number 2, Volume 34

Pilot study: TMS may benefit individuals with ASD, depression

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) may be an effective treatment for depression in individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and may also have some positive effects on ASD symptoms, a new study reports. 

McLeod Frampton Gwynette, who headed the study, says, “You’ll see very high rates of major depressive disorder in adults with autism, up to 26 to 50%. When they have depression, it tends to be more severe than in typically developing individuals. They’re also more likely to have suicidal ideation and more likely to attempt suicide. In addition, their depression is more likely to be refractory to treatment.” 

Gwynette and colleagues wanted to see if TMS, which has proven beneficial for many individuals with depression, would be effective for individuals with both depression and ASD. TMS involves placing a magnet on the scalp to generate electromagnetic pulses that activate neurons in the brain region near the magnet. 

The researchers enrolled 13 adults with both ASD and depression in their study, in which participants underwent 25 daily TMS treatments. The treatments targeted the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a brain region associated with depression. The researchers report that after treatment, 70% of participants had a decrease in symptoms of depression, with 40% experiencing a remission. While participants themselves did not detect a change in their ASD symptoms, people who knew the participants reported decreases in repetitive behaviors, hyperactivity, and irritability. 

Gwynette and his colleagues caution that this was a small, unblinded pilot study, and that larger, randomized, placebo-controlled trials are needed. However, study coauthor Mark George says, “These are promising results. I’m particularly intrigued by the improvements not just in depressive symptoms but also in other symptoms in the autism spectrum. That was unexpected.”


“Treatment of adults with autism and major depressive disorder using transcranial magnetic stimulation: an open label pilot study,” McLeod Frampton Gwynette, Danielle W. Lowe, Erin A. Henneberry, Gregory L. Sahlem, Melanie Gail Wiley, Hussam Alsarraf, Sarah Brice Russo, Jane E. Joseph, Philipp M. Summers, Laura Lohnes, and Mark S. George, Autism Research, Vol. 13, No. 3, January 15, 2020 (online). Address: McLeod Frampton Gwynette, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Medical University of South Carolina, 67 President Street, 5th Floor, South Tower, Room 509, Charleston, SC 29425, [email protected]


“Pilot study suggests promise of new approach to treat adults with autism and depression,” news release, Medical University of South Carolina, April 7, 2020.