A randomised, double blind, placebo-controlled trial of a fixed dose of N-acetyl cysteine in children with autistic disorder

Aust N Z J Psychiatry. 2017 Mar;51(3):241-249. doi: 10.1177/0004867416652735. Epub 2016 Jul 11.


Objective: Oxidative stress, inflammation and heavy metals have been implicated in the aetiology of autistic disorder. N-acetyl cysteine has been shown to modulate these pathways, providing a rationale to trial N-acetyl cysteine for autistic disorder. There are now two published pilot studies suggesting efficacy, particularly in symptoms of irritability. This study aimed to explore if N-acetyl cysteine is a useful treatment for autistic disorder.

Method: This was a placebo-controlled, randomised clinical trial of 500 mg/day oral N-acetyl cysteine over 6 months, in addition to treatment as usual, in children with a Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision diagnosis of autistic disorder. The study was conducted in Victoria, Australia. The primary outcome measures were the Social Responsiveness Scale, Children's Communication Checklist-Second Edition and the Repetitive Behavior Scale-Revised. Additionally, demographic data, the parent-completed Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales, Social Communication Questionnaire and clinician-administered Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule were completed.

Results: A total of 102 children were randomised into the study, and 98 (79 male, 19 female; age range: 3.1-9.9 years) attended the baseline appointment with their parent/guardian, forming the Intention to Treat sample. There were no differences between N-acetyl cysteine and placebo-treated groups on any of the outcome measures for either primary or secondary endpoints. There was no significant difference in the number and severity of adverse events between groups.

Conclusion: This study failed to demonstrate any benefit of adjunctive N-acetyl cysteine in treating autistic disorder. While this may reflect a true null result, methodological issues particularly the lower dose utilised in this study may be confounders.

Keywords: Autism; acetyl cysteine; clinical trial; spectrum.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Acetylcysteine / administration & dosage
  • Acetylcysteine / pharmacology*
  • Autistic Disorder / drug therapy*
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Female
  • Free Radical Scavengers / administration & dosage
  • Free Radical Scavengers / pharmacology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Treatment Failure


  • Free Radical Scavengers
  • Acetylcysteine