To review the published literature and registered clinical trials on pharmacologic interventions targeting social communication impairment in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
A comprehensive search of several databases (PubMed, MEDLINE, PsycINFO, Clinical trials.gov) was conducted to identify pharmacologic agents that have been, or will be, tested as treatments for social communication impairment in individuals with ASD. Evidence from basic science research supporting rational drug discovery is surveyed.
Data from animal models and early clinical trials suggest that novel and existing compounds, including N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) modulators, γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) agonists, metabotropic glutamate receptor (mGluR) antagonists and neuropeptides, may enhance social communication/function in ASD. Results from numerous Phase 2 and Phase 3 clinical trials are expected in the near future.
Recent evidence suggests that social communication may be an appropriate target for pharmacologic manipulation. It is hoped that, in combination with behavioural interventions, novel therapeutics may soon be clinically available to help improve social outcomes.
autistic disorder; psychopharmacology; oxytocin; social behaviour; trouble autiste; psychopharmacologie; oxytocine; comportement social
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) refers to a range of neurodevelopmental conditions characterized by social communication deficits, repetitive behaviours, and restrictive interests. Impaired inhibition has been suggested to exacerbate the core symptoms of ASD. This is particularly critical during adolescence when social skills are maturing to adult levels. Using magnetoencephalography (MEG), we identified the location and timing pattern of neural activity associated with inhibition in adolescents with autism, compared to typically developing adolescents.
The MEG data from 15 adolescents with ASD and 15 age-matched controls (13 to 17 years) were collected during a go/no-go task with inverse ratios of go/no-go trials in two conditions: an inhibition condition (1:2) and a baseline condition (2:1). No-go trials from the two conditions were analyzed using beamformer source localizations from 200 ms to 400 ms post-stimulus onset. Significant activations were determined using permutation testing.
Adolescents with ASD recruited first the right middle frontal gyrus (200 to 250 ms) followed by the left postcentral gyrus (250 to 300 ms) and finally the left middle frontal and right medial frontal gyri (300 to 400 ms). Typically developing adolescents recruited first the left middle frontal gyrus (200 to 250 ms), followed by the left superior and inferior frontal gyri (250 to 300 ms), then the right middle temporal gyrus (300 to 350 ms), and finally the superior and precentral gyri and right inferior lobule (300 to 400 ms).
Adolescents with ASD showed recruitment limited largely to the frontal cortex unlike typically developing adolescents who recruited parietal and temporal regions as well. These findings support the presence of an atypical, restricted inhibitory network in adolescents with ASD compared to controls.
Autism spectrum disorder; Adolescence; Brain imaging; Inhibition
Structural neuroimaging studies in autism report atypical volume in deep brain structures which are related to symptomatology. Little is known about metabolic changes in these regions, and how they vary with age and sex, and/or relate to clinical behaviors. Using magnetic resonance spectroscopy we measured N-acetylaspartate, choline, creatine, myoinositol and glutamate in the caudate, putamen, and thalamus of 20 children with autism and 16 typically developing controls (7–18 years). Relative to controls, individuals with autism had elevated glutamate/creatine in the putamen. In addition, both groups showed age-related increases in glutamate in this region. Boys, relative to girls had increased choline/creatine in the thalamus. Lastly, there were correlations between glutamate, choline, and myoinositol in all three regions, and behavioral scores in the ASD group. These findings suggest changes in deep gray matter neurochemistry, which are sensitive to diagnosis, age and sex, and are associated with behavioral differences.
Magnetic resonance spectroscopy; Autism spectrum disorders; Deep gray matter; Caudate nucleus; Putamen; Thalamus and social cognition
Background: Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and childhood onset schizophrenia (COS) are pediatric neurodevelopmental disorders associated with significant morbidity. Both conditions are thought to share an underlying genetic architecture. A comparison of neuroimaging findings across ASD and COS with a focus on altered neurodevelopmental trajectories can shed light on potential clinical biomarkers and may highlight an underlying etiopathogenesis.
Methods: A comprehensive review of the medical literature was conducted to summarize neuroimaging data with respect to both conditions in terms of structural imaging (including volumetric analysis, cortical thickness and morphology, and region of interest studies), white matter analysis (include volumetric analysis and diffusion tensor imaging) and functional connectivity.
Results: In ASD, a pattern of early brain overgrowth in the first few years of life is followed by dysmaturation in adolescence. Functional analyses have suggested impaired long-range connectivity as well as increased local and/or subcortical connectivity in this condition. In COS, deficits in cerebral volume, cortical thickness, and white matter maturation seem most pronounced in childhood and adolescence, and may level off in adulthood. Deficits in local connectivity, with increased long-range connectivity have been proposed, in keeping with exaggerated cortical thinning.
Conclusion: The neuroimaging literature supports a neurodevelopmental origin of both ASD and COS and provides evidence for dynamic changes in both conditions that vary across space and time in the developing brain. Looking forward, imaging studies which capture the early post natal period, which are longitudinal and prospective, and which maximize the signal to noise ratio across heterogeneous conditions will be required to translate research findings into a clinical environment.
autism spectrum disorder; childhood onset schizophrenia; neuroimaging; magnetic resonance imaging; child development; review
Several brain regions show structural and functional abnormalities in individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), but the developmental trajectory of abnormalities in these structures and how they may relate to social and communicative impairments are still unclear. We assessed the effects of age on cortical thickness in individuals with ASD, between the ages of 7 and 39 years in comparison to typically developing controls. Additionally, we examined differences in cortical thickness in relation to symptomatology in the ASD group, and their association with age. Analyses were conducted using a general linear model, controlling for sex. Social and communication scores from the Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised (ADI-R) were correlated with the thickness of regions implicated in those functions. Controls showed widespread cortical thinning relative to the ASD group. Within regions-of-interest, increased thickness in the rostral anterior cingulate cortex was associated with poorer social scores. Additionally, a significant interaction between age and social impairment was found in the orbitofrontal cortex, with more impaired younger children having decreased thickness in this region. These results suggest that differential neurodevelopmental trajectories are present in individuals with ASD and some differences are associated with diagnostic behaviours.
Autism spectrum disorders; Structural MRI; Cortical thickness; Social impairment; Developmental changes
Assessment of anxiety symptoms in autism spectrum disorders (ASD) is a challenging task due to the symptom overlap between the two conditions as well as the difficulties in communication and awareness of emotions in ASD. This motivates the development of a physiological marker of anxiety in ASD that is independent of language and does not require observation of overt behaviour. In this study, we investigated the feasibility of using indicators of autonomic nervous system (ANS) activity for this purpose. Specially, the objectives of the study were to 1) examine whether or not anxiety causes significant measurable changes in indicators of ANS in an ASD population, and 2) characterize the pattern of these changes in ASD. We measured three physiological indicators of the autonomic nervous system response (heart rate, electrodermal activity, and skin temperature) during a baseline (movie watching) and anxiety condition (Stroop task) in a sample of typically developing children (n = 17) and children with ASD (n = 12). The anxiety condition caused significant changes in heart rate and electrodermal activity in both groups, however, a differential pattern of response was found between the two groups. In particular, the ASD group showed elevated heart rate during both baseline and anxiety conditions. Elevated and blunted phasic electrodermal activity were found in the ASD group during baseline and anxiety conditions, respectively. Finally, the ASD group did not show the typical decrease in skin temperature in response to anxiety. These results suggest that 1) signals of the autonomic nervous system may be used as indicators of anxiety in children with ASD, and 2) ASD may be associated with an atypical autonomic response to anxiety that is most consistent with sympathetic over-arousal and parasympathetic under-arousal.
Evidence from biochemical, imaging, and treatment studies suggest abnormalities of the serotonin system in autism spectrum disorders, in particular in frontolimbic areas of the brain. We used the radiotracers [11C]MDL 100907 and [11C]DASB to characterize the 5-HT2A receptor and serotonin transporter in Asperger’s Disorder. 17 individuals with Asperger’s Disorder (age = 34.3 ± 11.1 yr) and 17 healthy controls (age = 33.0 ± 9.6 yr) were scanned with [11C]MDL 100907. Of the 17 patients, eight (age = 29.7 ± 7.0 yr) were also scanned with [11C]DASB, as were eight healthy controls (age = 28.7 ± 7.0 yr). Patients with Asperger’s Disorder and healthy control subjects were matched for age, gender, and ethnicity, and all had normal intelligence. Metabolite-corrected arterial plasma inputs were collected and data analyzed by 2 tissue-compartment modeling. The primary outcome measure was regional binding potential BPND. Neither regional [11C]MDL 100907 BPND nor [11C]DASB BPND were statistically different between the Asperger’s and healthy subjects. This study failed to find significant alterations in binding parameters of 5-HT2A receptors and serotonin transporters in adult subjects with Asperger’s Disorder.
autism spectrum disorders; 5-HT2A receptor; Asperger’s Disorder; positron emission tomography; serotonin transporter; serotonin
There are no effective medications for the treatment of social cognition/function deficits in autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and adult intervention literature in this area is sparse. Emerging data from animal models and genetic association studies as well as early, single-dose intervention studies suggest that the oxytocin system may be a potential therapeutic target for social cognition/function deficits in ASD. The primary aim of this study was to examine the safety/therapeutic effects of intranasal oxytocin versus placebo in adults with ASD, with respect to the two core symptom domains of social cognition/functioning and repetitive behaviors.
This was a pilot, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel design trial of intranasal oxytocin versus placebo in 19 adults with ASD (16 males; 33.20 ± 13.29 years). Subjects were randomized to 24 IU intranasal oxytocin or placebo in the morning and afternoon for 6 weeks. Measures of social function/cognition (the Diagnostic Analysis of Nonverbal Accuracy) and repetitive behaviors (Repetitive Behavior Scale Revised) were administered. Secondary measures included the Social Responsiveness Scale, Reading-the-Mind-in-the-Eyes Test and the Yale Brown Obsessive Compulsive Scale – compulsion subscale and quality of life (World Health Organization Quality of Life Questionnaire – emotional/social subscales). Full-information maximum-likelihood parameter estimates were obtained and tested using mixed-effects regression analyses.
Although no significant changes were detected in the primary outcome measures after correcting for baseline differences, results suggested improvements after 6 weeks in measures of social cognition (Reading-the-Mind-in-the-Eyes Test, p = 0.002, d = 1.2), and quality of life (World Health Organization Quality of Life Questionnaire – emotion, p = 0.031, d = 0.84), both secondary measures. Oxytocin was well tolerated and no serious adverse effects were reported.
This pilot study suggests that there is therapeutic potential to daily administration of intranasal oxytocin in adults with ASD and that larger and longer studies are warranted.
Autism; Adults; Oxytocin; Clinical trial; Social cognition
Attentional dysfunction is among the most consistent observations of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). However, the neural nature of this deficit in ASD is still unclear. In this study, we aimed to identify the neurobehavioral correlates of attentional dysfunction in ASD. We used the Attention Network Test-Revised and functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine alerting, orienting, and executive control functions, as well as the neural substrates underlying these attentional functions in unmedicated, high-functioning adults with ASD (n = 12) and matched healthy controls (HC, n = 12). Compared with HC, individuals with ASD showed increased error rates in alerting and executive control, accompanied by lower activity in the mid-frontal gyrus and the caudate nucleus for alerting, and by the absence of significant functional activation in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) for executive control. In addition, greater behavioral deficiency in executive control in ASD was correlated with less functional activation of the ACC. These findings of behavioral and neural abnormalities in alerting and executive control of attention in ASD may suggest core attentional deficits, which require further investigation.
Alerting; anterior cingulate cortex; attentional networks; autism; executive control
Attentional dysfunction is one of the most consistent findings in individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). However, the significance of such findings for the pathophysiology of autism is unclear. In this study, we investigated cellular neurochemistry with proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy imaging (1H-MRS) in brain regions associated with networks subserving alerting, orienting, and executive control of attention in patients with ASD. Concentrations of cerebral N-acetyl-aspartate (NAA), creatinine + phosphocreatinine, choline-containing compounds, myo-inositol (Ins) and glutamate + glutamine (Glx) were determined by 3 T 1H-MRS examinations in 14 high-functioning medication-free adults with a diagnosis of ASD and 14 age- and IQ-matched healthy controls (HC) in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), thalamus, temporoparietal junction (TPJ), and areas near or along the intraparietal sulcus (IPS). Compared to HC group, the ASD group showed significantly lower Glx concentrations in right ACC and reduced Ins in left TPJ. This study provides evidence of abnormalities in neurotransmission related to networks subserving executive control and alerting of attention, functions which have been previously implicated in ASD pathogenesis.
autism; spectroscopy; glutamate; anterior cingulate cortex; intraparietal sulcus; myo-inositol
Abnormal white matter development may disrupt integration within neural circuits, causing particular impairments in higher-order behaviours. In autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), white matter alterations may contribute to characteristic deficits in complex socio-emotional and communication domains. Here, we used diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) and tract based spatial statistics (TBSS) to evaluate white matter microstructure in ASD.
DTI scans were acquired for 19 children and adolescents with ASD (∼8–18 years; mean 12.4±3.1) and 16 age and IQ matched controls (∼8–18 years; mean 12.3±3.6) on a 3T MRI system. DTI values for fractional anisotropy, mean diffusivity, radial diffusivity and axial diffusivity, were measured. Age by group interactions for global and voxel-wise white matter indices were examined. Voxel-wise analyses comparing ASD with controls in: (i) the full cohort (ii), children only (≤12 yrs.), and (iii) adolescents only (>12 yrs.) were performed, followed by tract-specific comparisons. Significant age-by-group interactions on global DTI indices were found for all three diffusivity measures, but not for fractional anisotropy. Voxel-wise analyses revealed prominent diffusion measure differences in ASD children but not adolescents, when compared to healthy controls. Widespread increases in mean and radial diffusivity in ASD children were prominent in frontal white matter voxels. Follow-up tract-specific analyses highlighted disruption to pathways integrating frontal, temporal, and occipital structures involved in socio-emotional processing.
Our findings highlight disruption of neural circuitry in ASD, particularly in those white matter tracts that integrate the complex socio-emotional processing that is impaired in this disorder.
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 disorders (ASDs) are neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by social and language deficits and by repetitive behaviors and interests. Irritability/aggression is a significant comorbid symptom in this population, which greatly impacts burden of care. This study examined the effect of divalproex sodium for irritability/aggression in children and adolescents with ASD. This was a 12-week randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. All efficacy measures were obtained by an independent evaluator blinded to randomization condition and side effects. A total of 55 subjects gavetheir consent and 27 were randomized in a 1 : 1 manner (mean age 9.46±2.46, mean nonverbal IQ 63.3±23.9). Two subjects from the active group and one subject from the placebo group discontinued the study because of either a lack of efficacy or side effects (increased irritability). Primary outcome measures were Aberrant Behavior Checklist-Irritability subscale and Clinical Global Impression-Improvement, which focused on irritability. Overall, 62.5% of divalproex subjects vs 9% of placebo subjects were responders (CGI-irritability OR: 16.7, Fisher's exact p=0.008). A statistically significant improvement was also noted on the ABC-Irritability subscale (p=0.048). There was a trend for responders to have higher valproate blood levels compared with nonresponders. This study suggests the efficacy of divalproex for the treatment of irritability in children and adolescents with ASD. Larger sample follow-up studies are warranted.
ASD; irritability; divalproex; children; adolescents; Development/Developmental Disorders; Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences; Psychopharmacology; Clinical Pharmacology/Trials; autism; adolescents; children; EEG; divalproex
Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) are neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by social and language deficits and repetitive behaviors and interests. Irritability/aggression is a significant co-morbid symptom in this population, which greatly impacts burden of care. This study examined the effect of divalproex sodium for irritability / aggression in children and adolescents with ASD.
This was a 12 week randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. All efficacy measures were obtained by an independent evaluator blinded to randomization condition and side effects. Fifty five subjects signed consent and 27 were randomized in a 1:1 fashion (mean age 9.46±2.46, mean non verbal IQ 63.3±23.9). Two subjects from the active group and one subject from the placebo group discontinued the study due to either lack of efficacy or side effects (increased irritability).
The primary outcome measures were Aberrant Behavior Checklist-Irritability subscale and Clinical Global Impression-Improvement, focused on irritability. 62.5% of divalproex subjects vs. 9% of placebo subjects were responders (CGI-irritability OR:16.7, Fisher’s exact p=0.008). A statistically significant improvement was also noted on the ABC-Irritability subscale (p=0.048). There was a trend for the responders to have higher valproate blood levels than the non-responders.
This study suggests efficacy of divalproex for the treatment of irritability in children and adolescents with ASD. Larger sample follow-up studies are warranted.
ASD; irritability; divalproex; children; adolescents
Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are childhood neurodevelopmental disorders with complex genetic origins1–4. Previous studies focusing on candidate genes or genomic regions have identified several copy number variations (CNVs) that are associated with an increased risk of ASDs5–9. Here we present the results from a whole-genome CNV study on a cohort of 859 ASD cases and 1,409 healthy children of European ancestry who were genotyped with ~550,000 single nucleotide polymorphism markers, in an attempt to comprehensively identify CNVs conferring susceptibility to ASDs. Positive findings were evaluated in an independent cohort of 1,336 ASD cases and 1,110 controls of European ancestry. Besides previously reported ASD candidate genes, such as NRXN1 (ref. 10) and CNTN4 (refs 11, 12), several new susceptibility genes encoding neuronal cell-adhesion molecules, including NLGN1 and ASTN2, were enriched with CNVs in ASD cases compared to controls (P = 9.5 × 10−3). Furthermore, CNVs within or surrounding genes involved in the ubiquitin pathways, including UBE3A, PARK2, RFWD2 and FBXO40, were affected by CNVs not observed in controls (P = 3.3 × 10−3). We also identified duplications 55 kilobases upstream of complementary DNA AK123120 (P = 3.6 × 10−6). Although these variants may be individually rare, they target genes involved in neuronal cell-adhesion or ubiquitin degradation, indicating that these two important gene networks expressed within the central nervous system may contribute to the genetic susceptibility of ASD.
It has previously been shown that specific microdeletions and microduplications, many of which also associated with cognitive impairment (CI), can present with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). Multiplex ligation-dependent probe amplification (MLPA) represents an efficient method to screen for such recurrent microdeletions and microduplications.
In the current study, a total of 279 unrelated subjects ascertained for ASDs were screened for genomic disorders associated with CI using MLPA. Fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH), quantitative polymerase chain reaction (Q-PCR) and/or direct DNA sequencing were used to validate potential microdeletions and microduplications. Methylation-sensitive MLPA was used to characterize individuals with duplications in the Prader-Willi/Angelman (PWA) region.
MLPA showed two subjects with typical ASD-associated interstitial duplications of the 15q11-q13 PWA region of maternal origin. Two additional subjects showed smaller, de novo duplications of the PWA region that had not been previously characterized. Genes in these two novel duplications include GABRB3 and ATP10A in one case, and MKRN3, MAGEL2 and NDN in the other. In addition, two subjects showed duplications of the 22q11/DiGeorge syndrome region. One individual was found to carry a 12 kb deletion in one copy of the ASPA gene on 17p13, which when mutated in both alleles leads to Canavan disease. Two subjects showed partial duplication of the TM4SF2 gene on Xp11.4, previously implicated in X-linked non-specific mental retardation, but in our subsequent analyses such variants were also found in controls. A partial duplication in the ASMT gene, located in the pseudoautosomal region 1 (PAR1) of the sex chromosomes and previously suggested to be involved in ASD susceptibility, was observed in 6–7% of the cases but in only 2% of controls (P = 0.003).
MLPA proves to be an efficient method to screen for chromosomal abnormalities. We identified duplications in 15q11-q13 and in 22q11, including new de novo small duplications, as likely contributing to ASD in the current sample by increasing liability and/or exacerbating symptoms. Our data indicate that duplications in TM4SF2 are not associated with the phenotype given their presence in controls. The results in PAR1/PAR2 are the first large-scale studies of gene dosage in these regions, and the findings at the ASMT locus indicate that further studies of the duplication of the ASMT gene are needed in order to gain insight into its potential involvement in ASD. Our studies also identify some limitations of MLPA, where single base changes in probe binding sequences alter results. In summary, our studies indicate that MLPA, with a focus on accepted medical genetic conditions, may be an inexpensive method for detection of microdeletions and microduplications in ASD patients for purposes of genetic counselling if MLPA-identified deletions are validated by additional methods.