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Int J Dev Neurosci. 2005 Feb;23(1):75-83.

Behavioral and cellular consequences of increasing serotonergic activity during brain development: a role in autism?

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  • 1Program in Biopsychology, Department of Psychology, SUNY, Stony Brook, New York, NY 11794-2500, USA.


The hypothesis explored in this review is that the high levels of serotonin in the blood seen in some autistic children (the so-called hyperserotonemia of autism) may lead to some of the behavioral and cellular changes also observed in the disorder. At early stages of development, when the blood-brain Barrier is not yet fully formed, the high levels of serotonin in the blood can enter the brain of a developing fetus and cause loss of serotonin terminals through a known negative feedback function of serotonin during development. The loss of serotonin innervation persists throughout subsequent development and the symptoms of autism appear. A review of the basic scientific literature on prenatal treatments affecting serotonin is given, in support of this hypothesis, with an emphasis on studies using the serotonin agonist, 5-methoxytryptamine (5-MT). In work using 5-MT to mimic hyperserotonemia, Sprague-Dawley rats are treated from gestational day 12 until postnatal 20. In published reports, these animals have been found to have a significant loss of serotonin terminals, decreased metabolic activity in cortex, changes in columnar development in cortex, changes in serotonin receptors, and "autistic-like" behaviors. In preliminary cellular findings given in this review, the animals have also been found to have cellular changes in two relevant brain regions: 1. Central nucleus of the amygdala, a brain region involved in fear-responding, where an increase in calcitonin gene related peptide (CGRP) was found 2. Paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus, a brain region involved in social memory and bonding, where a decrease in oxytocin was found. Both of these cellular changes could result from loss of serotonin innervation, possibly due to loss of terminal outgrowth from the same cells of the raphe nuclei. Thus, increased serotonergic activity during development could damage neurocircuitry involved in emotional responding to social stressors and may have relevance to the symptoms of autism.

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