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Res Dev Disabil. 2006 May-Jun;27(3):254-89. Epub 2005 Jul 5.

Neurochemical correlates of autistic disorder: a review of the literature.

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Neurodevelopmental Disorders Research Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA.


Review of neurochemical investigations in autistic disorder revealed that a wide array of transmitter systems have been studied, including serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, acetylcholine, oxytocin, endogenous opioids, cortisol, glutamate, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). These studies have been complicated by the fact that autism is a very heterogeneous disorder which often presents with comorbid behavioral problems. In addition, many of these studies employed very small samples and inappropriate control groups, making it difficult to draw conclusions with confidence. Overall, serotonin appears to have the most empirical evidence for a role in autism, but this requires further investigation and replication. There is little support for the notion that a dysfunction of norepinephrine or the endogenous opioids are related to autism. The role of dopaminergic functioning has not been compelling thus far, though conflicting findings on central dopamine turnover require further study. Promising new areas of study may include possible dysfunction of the cholinergic system, oxytocin, and amino acid neurotransmitters. Implications for pharmacotherapy are briefly discussed for each neurotransmitter system with brief research examples. Review of this work emphasizes the need for future studies to control for subject variables, such as race, sex, pubertal status, and distress associated with blood draws, which can affect measures of neurochemical function. In addition, research in neurochemistry must continue to work in concert with other subspecialties to form a more comprehensive and theory-based approach to the neurobiological correlates of autistic disorder.

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