The Latest Treatment Options for Down Syndrome

Down syndrome occurs when an extra chromosome is present in some or all cells in the body, explains the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Three different types of Down syndrome (DS) can be possible: trisomy 21, translocation DS and mosaic DS. Ultimately, trisomy 21 refers to an extra chromosome in all body cells, translocation DS has the extra chromosome embedded in the 21st chromosome, and mosaic DS has a mixed of both forms.

Unfortunately, the genetic cause of DS means a cure is virtually impossible. However, new treatments are being devised to help those with this intellectual and developmental disability (IDD) overcome their symptoms. For example, speech therapy can help reduce communication difficulties.

By understanding the latest treatment approaches to DS, you can help reduce additional developmental delays in those with this IDD. More importantly, new treatments will enhance each person’s individual treatment plan.


Traditional Therapies Remain Essential to DS Treatment

Therapies are an integral part of DS treatment. Behavioral analysis may be used to assess the effectiveness of different therapies as well. Since those with DS may refrain from communicating, speech therapy must be a focus of any therapeutic program. Similarly, hearing loss or other health problems that occur in conjunction with DS may impact cognitive function and reasoning.


Sleep Evaluations to Treat Sleep Problems Associated With DS

Obstructive sleep apnea is one of the most common problems that occurs in individuals with DS. Between 50 and 75 percent of those with this IDD suffer from sleep apnea at any given time. Unfortunately, sleep apnea may lead to other health problems, including aspiration of sputum, hypoxic brain injury or heart arrhythmias.

Due to these possibilities, sleep studies have become an important topic in new treatment approaches to DS. In a recent study, reports the U.S. National Library of Medicine, sleep evaluations or studies showed the prevalence of sleep apnea among children and teens with DS were within expectations. However, approximately 50 percent of study participants refused to complete an actual sleep study, which is used to identify appropriate treatment measures.

The study reaffirms the need for all persons with DS to undergo sleep evaluations to prevent further developmental delays or regression of DS symptoms.


Immunosuppression Therapies May Benefit Specific Co-Occurring Problems

Defects involving the cardiovascular systems affect approximately 50 percent of people with DS, and among these defects, anemias may be present. In another study, immunosuppressive therapies were shown to pose minimal risk to overall health and reduce recurrence of anemias, including aplastic anemia, in those with DS when a compatible bone marrow donor is unavailable. In other words, immunosuppression therapy may be a solution to preventing or treating co-occurring health problems.


Antidepressants May Reduce Symptoms of DS

Antidepressants have traditionally been a last resort for treating any sort of illness among children and teens. However, antidepressants are becoming a popular treatment option for DS. Unfortunately, per the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHHD) cited in 2014, studies involving “few participants” yielded unreliable, limited results. Although this information from 2014 seems disheartening, it is not stopping parents and caregivers of children with DS from exploring the use of antidepressant therapies.

As explained by the MIT Technology Review, more than 200 children with DS are currently taking the antidepressant fluoxetine. Unfortunately, all large-scale trials of antidepressants for DS have only been conducted in mice. However, researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center are currently conducting a study to determine the effect of fluoxetine on fetal development when participating women’s’ unborn children have been diagnosed with DS.


New Assistive Devices Emerge

There is limited research on the use of new technologies as assisted devices for intellectual or developmental disabilities. However, that does not mean assistive devices are constrained by traditional standards.

For example, a hearing aid is a type of assistive device typically used to help children, teens and adults with DS and hearing loss, but it does not seem directly linked to new technologies.

A quick search of Google Play or iTunes reveals hundreds of apps designed to help communication for those with hearing or speech difficulties. In fact, Special Words was created specifically with the purpose of helping “parents, teachers and health professionals” teach visual learners with intellectual disabilities how to speak more clearly and concisely. It can also help encourage appropriate communication and interaction in social situations.

Another app, SpeechBox for Articulation Speech Therapy, allows users to customize the communication-learning environment with pictures taken by the device’s camera and an easy user interface.

Although these apps may not seem likely to fit the standard definition of an assistive device, they are designed to enhance and improve the skills of those with IDDs. In other words, the apps have become an extension of assisted devices, and if paired with devices that track physical activity, such as the Fitbit, the power of apps could be leveraged to generate the most accurate, real-time data collection and analysis of tools for treating DS in history.


Final Thoughts

There are many new ways researchers, parents, caregivers and therapists are viewing treatment for people with DS. The opportunities for overcoming the physical and cognitive challenges associated with this IDD are growing, and you have the potential to spur the next innovation.

Encourage your staff members, behavioral technicians, therapists and others in your organization to start considering new treatment approaches to DS. While some of these approaches can seem unusual, such as antidepressant therapy, all possible treatments need to be fully utilized to give those with DS the best chances to overcome their genes and succeed in life.

Jason Vanover

Working in health care since 2005, Jason's body of experience encompasses dozens of care settings, including Senior care, psychiatric facilities, nonprofit health service centers, group homes for those with developmental disabilities and beyond. Jason understands the need to tailor his skills to each setting to encourage the best treatment outcomes and promote an inclusive, healing environment.

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