CHATTANOOGA (WRCB)-- They are diseases that affect opposite age groups. Autism affects young children, Alzheimer's affects older adults.
But researchers believe one drug could have an impact on both diseases.
In most ways, Henry Hess is just like most other 10-year-old boys, he loves riding his bike, playing and drawing. It's only during conversations that Henry's autism is noticeable.
"The biggest challenge for Henry is his communication, his expressive communication," says Thomas Hess, Henry's father.
"You know, there's days where we'll get an eight word sentence out of him. And then there's days where, you know, we'll just get a couple of words," says Amy Hess, Henry's mother.
To try and help change that, Henry is enrolling in a new study involving a drug called memantine, one that's already proven effective in a much different type of patient.
"We know it's active and effective in people with Alzheimer's disease. It actually serves to enhance cognitive function, or at least hold the line," says Dr. Michael Aman from the Ohio State University Medical Center.
So Dr. Michael Aman is testing the drug on kids with autism. He says memantine has been used in Alzheimer's patients for nearly a decade in the U.S. and given their similarities, may help in autism, too.
In both diseases, there is a malfunction in the brain involving a chemical called glutamate which impacts the patient's speech and interaction.
"In the case of Alzheimer's, we're talking about loss of function. In the case of autistic disorder we're talking about failure to develop," says Dr. Aman.
If this drug can help with one, it may help with the other. Dr. Aman says most drugs for autism only focus on lessening symptoms like hyperactivity or repetitive actions. This study is designed to try and help communication, one of the core issues of autism.
"We've always said if he could talk, you'd never know there was anything going on with him because everything else about him is fairly typical. Everything is put at it's optimal best," says Amy Hess.
One earlier study using mematine on kids with autism showed promising results, giving researchers reason to expand their tests. They are also confident the drug is safe. It has been used in Europe for nearly 30 years to help fight dementia and was approved for use in Alzheimer's patients in 2003.