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Hypothesis (Tor). 2011 Sep;9(1). pii: e2.

Association of hypomelanotic skin disorders with autism: links to possible etiologic role of vitamin-D levels in autism?

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  • 1Child and Adolescent Unit, Federal Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital, New Haven, Enugu, Enugu State, Nigeria.


Vitamin D is crucial for several key physiological processes, including brain development, DNA repair, and regulation of many genes. Much evidence indicates prenatal and early postnatal vitamin-D deficiency increases autism risk, probably through multiple effects, including impaired brain development and increased de novo mutations. High autism rates in several genetically based hypomelanotic skin disorders are puzzling, because ultraviolet-B radiation (UVB) in sunlight acting on skin is a key source of vitamin-D, and lighter skin protects against vitamin-D deficiency, especially at high latitudes. We consider two hypotheses to help explain autism's co-morbidity with hypomelanosis. 1) Because genetic and epigenetic variants that produce hypomelanosis help protect against vitamin-D deficiency, they increase reproductive fitness of individuals who also have other autism risk factors. 2) Hypomelanotic children have increased autism risk because photosensitivity and skin-cancer concerns lead families to excessively reduce children's sun exposure. Hypothesis testing could involve studies comparing genomes, epigenetic markers, skin pigmentation, and vitamin-D levels in autistic individuals with and without hypomelanosis, their relatives and controls. Conducting such studies in samples from regions that differ widely in UVB availability would provide particularly valuable data. Support for either hypothesis would elucidate vitamin-D's role in autism and suggest vitamin-D enhancement may aid treatment and prevention of autism.

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