A variety of features of autism can be simulated in rodents, including the core behavioral hallmarks of stereotyped and repetitive behaviors, and deficits in social interaction and communication. Other behaviors frequently found in autism spectrum disorders (ASD) such as neophobia, enhanced anxiety, abnormal pain sensitivity and eye blink conditioning, disturbed sleep patterns, seizures, and deficits in sensorimotor gating are also present in some of the animal models. Neuropathology and some characteristic neurochemical changes that are frequently seen in autism, as well as alterations in the immune status in the brain and periphery are also found in some of the models. Several known environmental risk factors for autism have been successfully established in rodents, including maternal infection and maternal valproate administration. Also under investigation are a number of mouse models based on genetic variants associated with autism or on syndromic disorders with autistic features. This review briefly summarizes recent developments in this field, highlighting models with face and/or construct validity, and noting the potential for investigation of pathogenesis and early progress towards clinical testing of potential therapeutics. Wherever possible, reference is made to reviews rather than primary articles.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) refers to a group of heterogeneous neurodevelopmental disorders that are unified by impairments in reciprocal social communication and a pattern of inflexible behaviors. Recent genetic advances have resolved some of the complexity of the genetic architecture underlying ASD by identifying several genetic variants that contribute to the disorder. Different etiological pathways associated with ASD may converge through effects on common molecular mechanisms, such as synaptogenesis, neuronal motility, and axonal guidance. Recently, with more sophisticated techniques, neuroimaging, and neuropathological studies have provided some consistency of evidence that altered structure, activity, and connectivity within complex neural networks is present in ASD, compared to typically developing children. The imaging-genetics approach promises to help bridge the gap between genetic variation, resultant biological effects on the brain, and production of complex neuropsychiatric symptoms. Here, we review recent findings from the developing field of imaging-genetics applied to ASD. Studies to date have indicated that relevant risk genes are associated with alterations in circuits that mediate socio-emotional, visuo-spatial, and language processing. Longitudinal studies ideally focused on early development, in conjunction with investigation for gene–gene, and gene–environment interactions may move the promise of imaging-genetics in ASD closer to the clinical domain.
autism spectrum disorder; neuroimaging; genetics; imaging-genetics; neurodevelopment
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder consisting of a constellation of symptoms that sometimes occur as part of a complex disorder characterized by impairments in social interaction, communication and behavioral domains. It is a highly disabling disorder and there is a need for treatment targeting the core symptoms. Although autism is accepted as highly heritable, there is no genetic cure at this time. Autism is shown to be linked to several genes and is a feature of some complex genetic disorders, including fragile X syndrome (FXS), fragile X premutation involvement, tuberous sclerosis and Rett syndrome. The term autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) covers autism, Asperger syndrome and pervasive developmental disorders (PDD-NOS) and the etiologies are heterogeneous. In recent years, targeted treatments have been developed for several disorders that have a known specific genetic cause leading to autism. Since there are significant molecular and neurobiological overlaps among disorders, targeted treatments developed for a specific disorder may be helpful in ASD of unknown etiology. Examples of this are two drug classes developed to treat FXS, Arbaclofen, a GABAB agonist, and mGluR5 antagonists, and both may be helpful in autism without FXS. The mGluR5 antagonists are also likely to have a benefit in the aging problems of fragile X premutation carriers, the fragile X –associated tremor ataxia syndrome (FXTAS) and the Parkinsonism that can occur in aging patients with fragile X syndrome. Targeted treatments in FXS which has a well known genetic etiology may lead to new targeted treatments in autism.
Fragile X Syndrome; Autism; mGluR; GABA; treatment
Autism and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are complex neurodevelopmental disorders. Susceptibility is believed to be the interaction of genetic heritability and environmental factors. The synchronous rises in autism/ASD prevalence and paracetamol (acetaminophen) use, as well as biologic plausibility have led to the hypothesis that paracetamol exposure may increase autism/ASD risk.
To explore the relationship of antenatal paracetamol exposure to ASD, population weighted average autism prevalence rates and paracetamol usage rates were compared. To explore the relationship of early neonatal paracetamol exposure to autism/ASD, population weighted average male autism prevalence rates for all available countries and U.S. states were compared to male circumcision rates – a procedure for which paracetamol has been widely prescribed since the mid-1990s. Prevalence studies were extracted from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Summary of Autism/ASD Prevalence Studies database. Maternal paracetamol usage and circumcision rates were identified by searches on Pub Med.
Using all available country-level data (n = 8) for the period 1984 to 2005, prenatal use of paracetamol was correlated with autism/ASD prevalence (r = 0.80). For studies including boys born after 1995, there was a strong correlation between country-level (n = 9) autism/ASD prevalence in males and a country’s circumcision rate (r = 0.98). A very similar pattern was seen among U.S. states and when comparing the 3 main racial/ethnic groups in the U.S. The country-level correlation between autism/ASD prevalence in males and paracetamol was considerably weaker before 1995 when the drug became widely used during circumcision.
This ecological analysis identified country-level correlations between indicators of prenatal and perinatal paracetamol exposure and autism/ASD. State level correlation was also identified for the indicator of perinatal paracetamol exposure and autism/ASD. Like all ecological analyses, these data cannot provide strong evidence of causality. However, biologic plausibility is provided by a growing body of experimental and clinical evidence linking paracetamol metabolism to pathways shown to be important in autism and related developmental abnormalities. Taken together, these ecological findings and mechanistic evidence suggest the need for formal study of the role of paracetamol in autism.
Paracetamol; Acetaminophen; Autism spectrum disorder; Sulfation; Glucuronidation; Pro-inflammatory cytokines
The etiology of autism is complex, and in most cases the underlying pathologic mechanisms are unknown. Autism is a hetereogeneous disorder, diagnosed subjectively on the basis of a large number of criteria. Recent research has investigated genetics, in utero insults and brain function as well as neurochemical and immunological factors. On the basis of family and twin studies, there appears to be a genetic basis for a wide "autistic syndrome." About a quarter of cases of autism are associated with genetic disorders such as fragile X syndrome or with infectious diseases such as congenital rubella. Genetic studies have shown an association between autism markers of brain development such as 3 markers of the c-Harvey-ros oncogene and the homeobox gene EN2. In some cases, autism is associated with insults early in gestation, including thalidomide embryopathy. Autism may arise from abnormal central nervous system functioning, since most autistic patients have indications of brain dysfunction, and about half of them have abnormal electroencephalograms. Similarly, the pattern of evoked response potentials and conduction time is altered in autistic children. There is substantial evidence from neuroimaging studies that dysfunctions in the cerebellum and possibly the temporal lobe and association cortex occur in autistic symptoms. Neurochemical studies have investigated the role of serotonin, epinephrine and norepinephrine, since levels of these neurotransmitters are altered in autism, although other hypotheses implicate overactive brain opioid systems and changes in oxytocin neurotransmission. Autoimmunity may also play a role; antibodies against myelin basic protein are often found in children with autism, who also have increased eosinophil and basophil response to IgE-mediated reactions. In summary, the prevailing view is that autism is caused by a pathophysiologic process arising from the interaction of an early environmental insult and a genetic predisposition.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a syndrome that affects normal brain development and is characterized by impaired social interaction as well as verbal and non-verbal communication and by repetitive, stereotypic behavior. ASD is a complex disorder arising from a combination of multiple genetic and environmental factors that are independent from racial, ethnic and socioeconomical status. The high heritability of ASD suggests a strong genetic basis for the disorder. Furthermore, a mounting body of evidence implies a role of various ion channel gene defects (channelopathies) in the pathogenesis of autism. Indeed, recent genome-wide association, and whole exome- and whole-genome resequencing studies linked polymorphisms and rare variants in calcium, sodium and potassium channels and their subunits with susceptibility to ASD, much as they do with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other neuropsychiatric disorders. Moreover, animal models with these genetic variations recapitulate endophenotypes considered to be correlates of autistic behavior seen in patients. An ion flux across the membrane regulates a variety of cell functions, from generation of action potentials to gene expression and cell morphology, thus it is not surprising that channelopathies have profound effects on brain functions. In the present work, we summarize existing evidence for the role of ion channel gene defects in the pathogenesis of autism with a focus on calcium signaling and its downstream effects.
calcium; mTOR; Fragile X syndrome; tuberous sclerosis; Rett syndrome; Prader-Willi syndrome; Angelman syndrome
Pervasive developmental disorders are a group of neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by impairments in communication, reciprocal social interaction and restricted repetitive behaviors or interests. The term autism spectrum disorders (ASD) has been used to describe their variable presentation. Although the cause of these disorders is not yet known, studies strongly suggest a genetic basis with a complex mode of inheritance. More research is needed to explore environmental factors that could be contributing to the cause of these disorders. The occurrence of ASD has been increasing worldwide, with the most recent prevalence studies indicating that they are present in 6 per 1000 children. The objectives of this article are to provide physicians with relevant information needed to identify and refer children presenting with symptoms suggestive of ASDs to specialized centers early, and to make them feel comfortable in dealing with public concerns regarding controversial issues about the etiology and management of these disorders.
Autism is a heterogeneous behaviorally defined neurodevelopmental disorder. It is defined by the presence of marked social deficits, specific language abnormalities, and stereotyped repetitive patterns of behavior. Because of the variability in the behavioral phenotype of the disorder among patients, the term autism spectrum disorder has been established. In the first part of this review, we provide an overview of neuropathological findings from studies of autism postmortem brains and identify the cerebellum as one of the key brain regions that can play a role in the autism phenotype. We review research findings that indicate possible links between the environment and autism including the role of mercury and immune-related factors. Because both genes and environment can alter the structure of the developing brain in different ways, it is not surprising that there is heterogeneity in the behavioral and neuropathological phenotypes of autism spectrum disorders. Finally, we describe animal models of autism that occur following insertion of different autism-related genes and exposure to environmental factors, highlighting those models which exhibit both autism-like behavior and neuropathology.
Autism spectrum disorders are neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by significant deficits in reciprocal social interactions, impaired communication and restricted, repetitive behaviors. As autism spectrum disorders are among the most heritable of neuropsychiatric disorders, much of autism research has focused on the search for genetic variants in protein-coding genes (i.e., the ‘trees’). However, no single gene can account for more than 1% of the cases of autism spectrum disorders. Yet, genome-wide association studies have often identified statistically significant associations of genetic variations in regions of DNA that do not code for proteins (i.e., intergenic regions). There is increasing evidence that such noncoding regions are actively transcribed and may participate in the regulation of genes, including genes on different chromosomes. This article summarizes evidence that suggests that the research spotlight needs to be expanded to encompass far-reaching gene-regulatory mechanisms that include a variety of epigenetic modifications, as well as noncoding RNA (i.e., the ‘forest’). Given that noncoding RNA represents over 90% of the transcripts in most cells, we may be observing just the ‘tip of the iceberg’ or the ‘edge of the forest’ in the genomic landscape of autism.
autism spectrum disorder phenotypes; ‘dark matter’ RNA; epigenetics; future therapeutic options; gene–environment interaction; genetics; new research paradigm
Current theories concerning the cause of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) have converged on the concept of abnormal development of brain connectivity. This concept is supported by accumulating evidence from functional imaging, diffusion tensor imaging, and high definition fiber tracking studies which suggest altered microstructure in the axonal tracts connecting cortical areas may underly many of the cognitive manifestations of ASD. Additionally, large-scale genomic studies implicate numerous gene candidates known or suspected to mediate neuritic outgrowth and axonal guidance in fetal and perinatal life. Neuropathological observations in postmortem ASD brain samples further support this model and include subtle disturbances of cortical lamination and subcortical axonal morphology. Of note is the relatively common finding of poor differentiation of the gray–white junction associated with an excess superficial white matter or “interstitial” neurons (INs). INs are thought to be remnants of the fetal subplate, a transient structure which plays a key role in the guidance and morphogenesis of thalamocortical and cortico-cortical connections and the organization of cortical columnar architecture. While not discounting the importance of synaptic dysfunction in the etiology of ASD, this paper will briefly review the cortical abnormalities and genetic evidence supporting a model of dysregulated axonal growth and guidance as key developmental processes underlying the clinical manifestations of ASD.
autism spectrum disorders; connectivity; neuritic outgrowth; axonal guidance; subplate
Autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are heterogeneous neurodevelopmental disorders. They are enigmatic conditions that have their origins in the interaction of genes and environmental factors. ASDs are characterized by dysfunctions in social interaction and communication skills, in addition to repetitive and stereotypic verbal and nonverbal behaviours. Immune dysfunction has been confirmed with autistic children. There are no defined mechanisms of pathogenesis or curative therapy presently available. Indeed, ASDs are still untreatable. Available treatments for autism can be divided into behavioural, nutritional, and medical approaches, although no defined standard approach exists. Nowadays, stem cell therapy represents the great promise for the future of molecular medicine. Among the stem cell population, mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) show probably best potential good results in medical research. Due to the particular immune and neural dysregulation observed in ASDs, mesenchymal stem cell transplantation could offer a unique tool to provide better resolution for this disease.
Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are highly heritable neurodevelopmental disorders that onset clinically during the first years of life. ASD-risk biomarkers expressed early in life could significantly impact diagnosis and treatment, but no transcriptome-wide biomarker classifiers derived from fresh blood samples from children with autism have yet emerged.
Using a community-based, prospective, longitudinal method, we identified 60 infants and toddlers at-risk for ASDs (autistic disorder and pervasive developmental disorder), 34 at-risk for language delay (LD), 17 at-risk for global developmental delay (DD), and 68 typically developing (TD) comparison children. Diagnoses were confirmed via longitudinal follow-up. Each child's mRNA expression profile in peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) was determined by microarray.
Potential ASD biomarkers were discovered in one half of the sample and used to build a classifier with high diagnostic accuracy in the remaining half of the sample.
The mRNA expression abnormalities reliably observed in PBMCs, which are safely and easily assayed in babies, offer the first potential peripheral blood-based early biomarker panel of risk for autism in infants and toddlers. Future work should verify these biomarkers and evaluate if they may also serve as indirect indices of deviant molecular neural mechanisms in autism.
autism; biomarker; classifier; microarray; support vector machine
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and epilepsy are very common neurological disorders of childhood, with an estimated incidence of about 0.5 – 1 % in worldwide population. ASD and epilepsy are often associated, suggesting that common neurodevelopmental bases may exist for these two disorders. The neurodevelopmental bases of both ASD and epilepsy have been clearly showed by a number of genetic, neuroimaging and neuropathological studies. In recent years, dysfunction of inhibitory GABAergic circuits has been proposed as a cause for both disorders. Several studies performed on both animal models and postmortem human samples indicate that GABAergic neurons and circuits are altered in both ASD and epilepsy, suggesting that the excitation/inhibition imbalance resulting from neurodevelopmental defects in GABAergic circuitry might represent a common pathogenetic mechanism for these disorders. Here, we will review the most significant studies supporting this hypothesis.
Seizure; mental retardation; neurological disorder; neurotransmission
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impairment in reciprocal social interaction, communication, and the manifestation of stereotyped behaviors. Despite much effort, ASDs are not yet fully understood. Advanced genetics and genomics technologies have recently identified novel ASD genes. Approaches using genetically engineered murine models or postmortem human brain have facilitated understanding ASD. Reprogramming somatic cells into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) provides unprecedented opportunities in generating human disease models. Here, we present an overview of applying iPSCs in developing cellular models for understanding ASD. We will also discuss the future perspectives in use of iPSC as a platform to screen small molecules alleviating ASD and as a source of cell therapy.
induced pluripotent stem cells; neurodevelopmental disorder; reprogramming; disease modeling; autism spectrum disorder; Rett syndrome; fragile X syndrome; Timothy syndrome
The symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have been suggested to manifest from atypical functioning of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), leading to altered arousal and atypical processing of salient stimuli. Coherent with this, persons with ASD show heightened autonomic activity, sleep difficulties, and structural and neurochemical alterations within the ANS. Recently, we observed decreased pupil responses to human faces in children with ASD. In the current study, we found differences in baseline (tonic) pupil size, with the ASD group exhibiting a larger pupil size than age-matched controls. Pupil responses are sensitive and reliable measures of ANS functioning, thus, this finding highlights the role of the ANS, and may provide clues about underlying neuropathology.
autism spectrum disorder; pupillometry; autonomic nervous system; arousal; eye-tracking; early identification
Autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are complex neurodevelopmental disorders. ASDs are clinically defined by deficits in communication, social skills, and repetitive and/or restrictive interests and behaviours. With the prevalence rates for ASDs rapidly increasing, the need for effective therapies for autism is a priority for biomedical research. Currently available medications do not target the core symptoms, can have markedly adverse side-effects, and are mainly palliative for negative behaviours. The development of molecular and regenerative interventions is progressing rapidly, and medicine holds great expectations for stem cell therapies. Cells could be designed to target the observed molecular mechanisms of ASDs, that is, abnormal neurotransmitter regulation, activated microglia, mitochondrial dysfunction, blood-brain barrier disruptions, and chronic intestinal inflammation. Presently, the paracrine, secretome, and immunomodulatory effects of stem cells would appear to be the likely mechanisms of application for ASD therapeutics. This review will focus on the potential use of the various types of stem cells: embryonic, induced pluripotential, fetal, and adult stem cells as targets for ASD therapeutics.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) refers to a syndrome of social communication deficits and repetitive behaviors or restrictive interests. It remains a behaviorally defined syndrome with no reliable biological markers. The goal of this review is to summarize the available neuroimaging data and examine their implication for our understanding of the neurobiology of ASD.
Although there is variability in the literature on structural magnetic resonance literature (MRI), there is evidence of volume abnormalities in both grey and white matter, with a suggestion of some region-specific differences. Early brain overgrowth is probably the most replicated finding in a subgroup of people with ASD, and new techniques, such as cortical-thickness measurements and surface morphometry have begun to elucidate in more detail the patterns of abnormalities as they evolve with age, and are implicating specific neuroanatomical or neurodevelopmental processes. Functional MRI and diffusion tensor imaging techniques suggest that such volume abnormalities are associated with atypical functional and structural connectivity in the brain, and researchers have begun to use magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) techniques to explore the neurochemical substrate of such abnormalities. The data from multiple imaging methods suggests that ASD is associated with an atypically connected brain. We now need to further clarify such atypicalities, and start interpreting them in the context of what we already know about typical neurodevelopmental processes including migration and organization of the cortex. Such an approach will allow us to relate imaging findings not only to behavior, but also to genes and their expression, which may be related to such processes, and to further our understanding of the nature of neurobiologic abnormalities in ASD.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is one of the most prevalent and highly heritable neurodevelopmental disorders in humans. There is significant evidence that the onset and severity of ASD is governed in part by complex genetic mechanisms affecting the normal development of the brain. To date, a number of genes have been associated with ASD. However, the temporal and spatial co-expression of these genes in the brain remain unclear. To address this issue, we examined the co-expression network of 26 autism genes from AutDB (http://mindspec.org/autdb.html), in the framework of 3,041 genes whose expression energies have the highest correlation between the coronal and sagittal images from the Allen Mouse Brain Atlas database (http://mouse.brain-map.org). These data were derived from in situ hybridization experiments conducted on male, 56-day old C57BL/6J mice co-registered to the Allen Reference Atlas, and were used to generate a normalized co-expression matrix indicating the cosine similarity between expression vectors of genes in this database. The network formed by the autism-associated genes showed a higher degree of co-expression connectivity than seen for the other genes in this dataset (Kolmogorov–Smirnov P = 5×10−28). Using Monte Carlo simulations, we identified two cliques of co-expressed genes that were significantly enriched with autism genes (A Bonferroni corrected P<0.05). Genes in both these cliques were significantly over-expressed in the cerebellar cortex (P = 1×10−5) suggesting possible implication of this brain region in autism. In conclusion, our study provides a detailed profiling of co-expression patterns of autism genes in the mouse brain, and suggests specific brain regions and new candidate genes that could be involved in autism etiology.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex neurodevelopmental condition associated with many different genes. However, the neuroanatomical and functional properties of these genes in the brain are largely unknown. Here we examined the co-expression network of 26 genes associated with ASD, using data from the Allen Mouse Brain Atlas, which provides a whole-genome, high-resolution map of gene expression pattern in the adult mouse brain. We discovered that autism genes are significantly more co-expressed than expected by chance, suggesting common neuro-functional properties. We then examined the spatial properties of co-expression modules that are highly enriched with autism genes. Consequently, we found that genes in two of these modules are significantly over-expressed in the cerebellar cortex, and particularly in sections that are predominantly populated by granular cells. These findings provide the essential link between gene networks associated with ASD and specific brain regions, and hence lay out a basis for further exploration of the particular neuronal circuits involved in ASD etiology.
Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) exhibit characteristic cognitive and behavioral differences, but no systematic pattern of neuroanatomical differences has been consistently found. Recent neurodevelopmental models posit an abnormal early surge in subcortical white matter growth in at least some autistic children, perhaps normalizing by adulthood, but other studies report subcortical white matter deficits. To investigate the profile of these alterations in 3D, we mapped brain volumetric differences using a relatively new method, tensor-based morphometry (TBM). 3D T1-weighted brain MRIs of 24 male children with ASD (age: 9.5 years ± 3.2 SD) and 26 age-matched healthy controls (age: 10.3 ± 2.4 SD) were fluidly registered to match a common anatomical template. Autistic children had significantly enlarged frontal lobes (by 3.6% on the left and 5.1% on the right), and all other lobes of the brain were enlarged significantly, or at trend level. By analyzing the applied deformations statistically point-by-point, we detected significant gray matter volume deficits in bilateral parietal, left temporal and left occipital lobes (p=0.038, corrected), trend-level cerebral white matter volume excesses, and volume deficits in the cerebellar vermis, adjacent to volume excesses in other cerebellar regions. This profile of excesses and deficits in adjacent regions may (1) indicate impaired neuronal connectivity, resulting from aberrant myelination and/or an inflammatory process, and (2) help to understand inconsistent findings of regional brain tissue excesses and deficits in autism.
Autism; TBM; white matter; gray matter; cerebellum; morphometry
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a highly heritable disorder of complex and heterogeneous aetiology. It is primarily characterized by altered cognitive ability including impaired language and communication skills and fundamental deficits in social reciprocity. Despite some notable successes in neuropsychiatric genetics, overall, the high heritability of ASD (~90%) remains poorly explained by common genetic risk variants. However, recent studies suggest that rare genomic variation, in particular copy number variation, may account for a significant proportion of the genetic basis of ASD. We present a large scale analysis to identify candidate genes which may contain low-frequency recessive variation contributing to ASD while taking into account the potential contribution of population differences to the genetic heterogeneity of ASD. Our strategy, homozygous haplotype (HH) mapping, aims to detect homozygous segments of identical haplotype structure that are shared at a higher frequency amongst ASD patients compared to parental controls. The analysis was performed on 1,402 Autism Genome Project trios genotyped for 1 million single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). We identified 25 known and 1,218 novel ASD candidate genes in the discovery analysis including CADM2, ABHD14A, CHRFAM7A, GRIK2, GRM3, EPHA3, FGF10, KCND2, PDZK1, IMMP2L and FOXP2. Furthermore, 10 of the previously reported ASD genes and 300 of the novel candidates identified in the discovery analysis were replicated in an independent sample of 1,182 trios. Our results demonstrate that regions of HH are significantly enriched for previously reported ASD candidate genes and the observed association is independent of gene size (odds ratio 2.10). Our findings highlight the applicability of HH mapping in complex disorders such as ASD and offer an alternative approach to the analysis of genome-wide association data.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1007/s00439-011-1094-6) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
Autism is a devastating neurodevelopmental disorder with a polygenetic predisposition that seems to be triggered by multiple environmental factors during embryonic and/or early postnatal life. While significant advances have been made in identifying the neuronal structures and cells affected, a unifying theory that could explain the manifold autistic symptoms has still not emerged. Based on recent synaptic, cellular, molecular, microcircuit, and behavioral results obtained with the valproic acid (VPA) rat model of autism, we propose here a unifying hypothesis where the core pathology of the autistic brain is hyper-reactivity and hyper-plasticity of local neuronal circuits. Such excessive neuronal processing in circumscribed circuits is suggested to lead to hyper-perception, hyper-attention, and hyper-memory, which may lie at the heart of most autistic symptoms. In this view, the autistic spectrum are disorders of hyper-functionality, which turns debilitating, as opposed to disorders of hypo-functionality, as is often assumed. We discuss how excessive neuronal processing may render the world painfully intense when the neocortex is affected and even aversive when the amygdala is affected, leading to social and environmental withdrawal. Excessive neuronal learning is also hypothesized to rapidly lock down the individual into a small repertoire of secure behavioral routines that are obsessively repeated. We further discuss the key autistic neuropathologies and several of the main theories of autism and re-interpret them in the light of the hypothesized Intense World Syndrome.
autism; microcircuit; connectivity; plasticity; neocortex; amygdala; valproic acid
Autism is a common neurodevelopmental disorder with a complex mode of inheritance. It is one of the most highly heritable of the complex disorders, however, the underlying genetic factors remain largely unknown. Here, we report mutations in the X-chromosome PTCHD1 (patched-related) gene, in seven families with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and in three families with intellectual disability (ID). A 167 Kb microdeletion spanning exon 1 was found in two brothers, one with ASD the other with learning disability and ASD features, and a 90 Kb microdeletion spanning the entire gene was found in three males with ID in a second family. In 900 ASD and 208 ID male probands we identified seven different missense changes in eight probands, all male and inherited from unaffected mothers, and not found in controls. Two of the ASD individuals with missense changes also carried a de novo deletion at another ASD-susceptibility locus (DPYD and DPP6), suggesting complex genetic contributions. In additional males with ASD, we identified deletions in the 5’ flanking region of PTCHD1 disrupting a complex non-coding RNA and potential regulatory elements; equivalent changes were not found in male control individuals (p=1.2 ×10-5). Systematic screening at PTCHD1 and 5’-flanking regions, suggests involvement of this locus in ~1% of ASD and ID individuals.
Tourette syndrome (TS) is a highly heritable neuropsychiatric disorder characterised by motor and vocal tics. Despite decades of research, the aetiology of TS has remained elusive. Recent successes in gene discovery backed by rapidly advancing genomic technologies have given us new insights into the genetic basis of the disorder, but the growing collection of rare and disparate findings have added confusion and complexity to the attempts to translate these findings into neurobiological mechanisms resulting in symptom genesis. In this review, we explore a previously unrecognised genetic link between TS and a competing series of trans-synaptic complexes (neurexins (NRXNs), neuroligins (NLGNs), leucine-rich repeat transmembrane proteins (LRRTMs), leucine rich repeat neuronals (LRRNs) and cerebellin precursor 2 (CBLN2)) that links it with autism spectrum disorder through neurodevelopmental pathways. The emergent neuropathogenetic model integrates all five genes so far found to be uniquely disrupted in TS into a single pathogenetic chain of events described in context with clinical and research implications.
autism spectrum disorder; genetics; neurexin; neurodevelopment; Tourette syndrome; trans-synaptic complexes
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by abnormalities in reciprocal social interactions and language development and/or usage, and by restricted interests and repetitive behaviors. Differential gene expression of neurologically relevant genes in lymphoblastoid cell lines from monozygotic twins discordant in diagnosis or severity of autism suggested that epigenetic factors such as DNA methylation or microRNAs (miRNAs) may be involved in ASD.
Global miRNA expression profiling using lymphoblasts derived from these autistic twins and unaffected sibling controls was therefore performed using high-throughput miRNA microarray analysis. Selected differentially expressed miRNAs were confirmed by quantitative reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (qRT-PCR) analysis, and the putative target genes of two of the confirmed miRNA were validated by knockdown and overexpression of the respective miRNAs.
Differentially expressed miRNAs were found to target genes highly involved in neurological functions and disorders in addition to genes involved in gastrointestinal diseases, circadian rhythm signaling, as well as steroid hormone metabolism and receptor signaling. Novel network analyses of the putative target genes that were inversely expressed relative to the relevant miRNA in these same samples further revealed an association with ASD and other co-morbid disorders, including muscle and gastrointestinal diseases, as well as with biological functions implicated in ASD, such as memory and synaptic plasticity. Putative gene targets (ID3 and PLK2) of two RT-PCR-confirmed brain-specific miRNAs (hsa-miR-29b and hsa-miR-219-5p) were validated by miRNA overexpression or knockdown assays, respectively. Comparisons of these mRNA and miRNA expression levels between discordant twins and between case-control sib pairs show an inverse relationship, further suggesting that ID3 and PLK2 are in vivo targets of the respective miRNA. Interestingly, the up-regulation of miR-23a and down-regulation of miR-106b in this study reflected miRNA changes previously reported in post-mortem autistic cerebellum by Abu-Elneel et al. in 2008. This finding validates these differentially expressed miRNAs in neurological tissue from a different cohort as well as supports the use of the lymphoblasts as a surrogate to study miRNA expression in ASD.
Findings from this study strongly suggest that dysregulation of miRNA expression contributes to the observed alterations in gene expression and, in turn, may lead to the pathophysiological conditions underlying autism.
The structural correlates of functional dysconnectivity in autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have been seldom explored, despite the fact that altered functional connectivity is one of the most frequent neuropathological observations in the disorder. We analyzed cerebral morphometry and structural connectivity using multi-modal imaging for 11 children/adolescents with ASD and 11 matched controls. We estimated regional cortical and white matter volumes, as well as vertex-wise measures of cortical thickness and local Gyrification Index (lGI). Diffusion Tensor Images (DTI) were used to measure Fractional Anisotropy (FA) and tractography estimates of short- and long-range connectivity. We observed four clusters of lGI reduction in patients with ASD, three were located in the right inferior frontal region extending to the inferior parietal lobe, and one was in the right medial parieto-occipital region. Reduced volume was found in the anterior corpus callosum, along with fewer inter-hemispheric frontal streamlines. Despite the spatial correspondence of decreased gyrification and reduced long connectivity, we did not observe any significant relationship between the two. However, a positive correlation between lGI and local connectivity was present in all four clusters in patients with ASD. Reduced gyrification in the inferior fronto-parietal and posterior medial cortical regions lends support for early-disrupted cortical growth in both the mirror neuron system and midline structures responsible for social cognition. Early impaired neurodevelopment in these regions may represent an initial substrate for altered maturation in the cerebral networks that support complex social skills. We also demonstrate that gyrification changes are related to connectivity. This supports the idea that an imbalance between short- and long-range white matter tracts not only impairs the integration of information from multiple neural systems, but also alters the shape of the brain early on in autism.
cortical folding; cerebral morphometry; tractography; neuroimaging; autism spectrum disorder