Significance of abnormalities in developmental trajectory and asymmetry of cortical serotonin synthesis in autism

Int J Dev Neurosci. 2005 Apr-May;23(2-3):171-82. doi: 10.1016/j.ijdevneu.2004.08.002.


The role of serotonin in prenatal and postnatal brain development is well documented in the animal literature. In earlier studies using positron emission tomography (PET) with the tracer alpha[(11)C]methyl-l-tryptophan (AMT), we reported global and focal abnormalities of serotonin synthesis in children with autism. In the present study, we measured brain serotonin synthesis in a large group of autistic children (n = 117) with AMT PET and related these neuroimaging data to handedness and language function. Cortical AMT uptake abnormalities were objectively derived from small homotopic cortical regions using a predefined cutoff asymmetry threshold (>2 S.D. of normal asymmetry). Autistic children demonstrated several patterns of abnormal cortical involvement, including right cortical, left cortical, and absence of abnormal asymmetry. Global brain values for serotonin synthesis capacity (unidirectional uptake rate constant, K-complex) values were plotted as a function of age. K-complex values of autistic children with asymmetry or no asymmetry in cortical AMT uptake followed different developmental patterns, compared to that of a control group of non-autistic children. The autism groups, defined by presence or absence and side of cortical asymmetry, differed on a measure of language as well as handedness. Autistic children with left cortical AMT decreases showed a higher prevalence of severe language impairment, whereas those with right cortical decreases showed a higher prevalence of left and mixed handedness. Global as well as focal abnormally asymmetric development in the serotonergic system could lead to miswiring of the neural circuits specifying hemispheric specialization.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Age Factors
  • Autistic Disorder / diagnostic imaging
  • Autistic Disorder / metabolism*
  • Autistic Disorder / pathology
  • Autistic Disorder / physiopathology
  • Brain Mapping
  • Carbon Isotopes
  • Cerebral Cortex / abnormalities*
  • Cerebral Cortex / diagnostic imaging
  • Cerebral Cortex / metabolism*
  • Cerebral Cortex / pathology
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • Functional Laterality / physiology
  • Humans
  • Language
  • Language Disorders / physiopathology
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Male
  • Neural Pathways / diagnostic imaging
  • Neural Pathways / metabolism*
  • Neural Pathways / pathology
  • Positron-Emission Tomography / methods
  • Regression, Psychology
  • Serotonin / biosynthesis*
  • Tryptophan / analogs & derivatives*


  • Carbon Isotopes
  • alpha-methyltryptophan
  • Serotonin
  • Tryptophan