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Drug-less therapies for kids make waves

University Of Chicago : 03 February, 2003  (Technical Article)
Dr. Allen Lewis had little use for alternative treatments for childhood behavior disorders in his early pediatric practice. But when his son was diagnosed with autism, Lewis was willing to try anything with even a remote chance of helping his child.
After trying traditional behavior therapy, Lewis turned to Warrenville-based Pfeiffer Treatment Center, which says chemical imbalances are the root cause of many behavior disorders, and treats patients with nutrients.

The results were so dramatic for his son, Lewis says, that he became one of Pfeiffer's biggest proponents. Now he's the center's medical director.

Coupled with a recent warning from the Food and Drug Administration concerning antidepressants for children, such anecdotal success stories have brought new attention to alternative treatments for childhood mental and behavioral disorders.

In the weeks after the FDA's decision to place strict 'black box' warnings on antidepressants, cautioning that the medications increase the risk of suicidal thoughts and behavior in children and teens, calls to the Pfeiffer center have tripled. During the last 15 years, the center has grown from a handful of patients to nearly 5,000 a year.

Another site with a similar alternative approach, the North Suburban Center for Holistic Medicine, also has seen a slight bump in interest since the FDA ruling.

But the heightened attention paid to Pfeiffer and other alternative-treatment centers raises concern among some prominent child psychiatrists, who argue there is no scientific data to support the centers' effectiveness.

'It would not be surprising that people would take advantage of this situation,' Dr. Bennett Leventhal, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Chicago. 'But when it comes to [Pfeiffer's] therapies, there's nothing even to argue about. They've never done the proper research.'

Leventhal said a recent paper Pfeiffer published in the little-known journal Physiology and Behavior, which argues that the center's biochemical and nutrient therapy reduces violent behavior, is 'completely flawed.'

He argues that Pfeiffer plays on the emotions of parents desperate for a no-drug solution for their troubled children. The treatment also can come with a hefty price tag. The initial treatment and analysis averages $1,000 at Pfeiffer, and the vitamins can cost an average of $900 per year. Many patients cannot get insurance to cover their treatments.

'When people are offered a miracle, they're always happy to look at it. But there's all kinds of miracles offered that don't live up to their promises,' Leventhal said.

Dr. Anthony D'Agostino, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at Alexian Brothers Hospital in Hoffman Estates, has similar concerns.

'A lot of people think that just because something is natural it must be good,' D'Agostino said. 'Well, both marijuana and tobacco are natural. They think ... it's innocuous with no side effects and we know that it's simply not true.'

The disclosure that some of the data on antidepressants was hidden for years by drugmakers makes some parents more skeptical of drug treatments for children.

But Peg Nichols, a spokeswoman for Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, said parents shouldn't be quick to abandon traditional drugs that have been scientifically proven effective.

'We cling to an idealized view of childhood and it doesn't include the use of pills,' she said. 'The caution is well-heeded, but to throw the baby out with the bath water doesn't make sense.'

Pfeiffer leaders, meanwhile, argue that they're not anti-drug and that some of their patients remain on traditional medication, but at a lower dosage. They also say anecdotal evidence and their own studies present a strong case that the mainstream medical community shouldn't dismiss.

Several medical doctors and psychiatrists also endorse the center's work, including Dr. Robert deVito, former chairman of psychiatry at Loyola Medical Center and the past director of the state Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities. DeVito is a part-time consultant to Pfeiffer and sees promise in the center's approach.

'I can get into the science behind medication and illness and see perhaps the ways nutrients fit into the overall scheme,' deVito said.

Some parents swear by the Pfeiffer approach.

Naperville mother Cindy Risky said Pfeiffer has 'changed my son's life.'

She took her son Ryan, then 4, to Pfeiffer six years ago after a psychiatrist suggested he had oppositional defiant disorder. At the time, Risky said, her son would not respond to simple discipline and rules.

'Any kind of request was just met with defiance, no matter what it was,' Risky said.

In two months of nutrient therapy, Risky said she saw dramatic changes in her son.

'If you had seen my son before and you saw him now, you'd just think a miracle happened,' she said.

But not all patients are believers.

'We tried it for about 18 months and I saw nothing,' said Northbrook resident Sally Weiss, whose son has biopolar disorder.

Dr. Jerry Gore, executive director of the Center for Holistic Medicine in Riverwoods, argued that it's only a matter of time before more doctors embrace alternative treatments.

Gore, who practices general medicine and psychiatry using holistic and traditional methods, said that what was once fringe has now moved into the mainstream.

'At one time, the idea of taking vitamin C and zinc for a cold ... was considered strange,' he said. 'Now everyone does it.'

Lewis said that once Pfeiffer completes a double-blind study with controls, it will turn more skeptics around. At the same time, the center is collaborating with universities to receive federal funding for scientific studies that may boost the center's credibility.

Lewis uses videos of his son, now 5, to convince medical doctors of the dramatic changes possible under nutrient therapy. In 18 months, the boy went from a non-verbal babbler to verbal.

'My first thinking is it wasn't going to work; there's no proven efficacy,' Lewis said. 'Now, I've fallen on my sword many times.'
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