Autism: review of neurochemical investigation

Synapse. 1990;6(3):292-308. doi: 10.1002/syn.890060309.


The neurochemistry of autism, the most well-validated childhood neuropsychiatric disorder, has been studied extensively over the past three decades. Autism is of interest neurochemically because it represents a relatively homogeneous disorder with a triad of social, communicative, and intellectual developmental disturbance. Because a sufficient animal model has been lacking and relatively few diagnosed people with autism have died, most investigation has been of peripheral fluids and tissues. The most consistent finding has been that over 25% of autistic children and adolescents are hyperserotonemic. However, after 29 years of investigation, the mechanism of hyperserotonemia has not been determined. Hyperserotonemia has been found to be familial. Elevated plasma norepinephrine has also been a replicated finding. Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) opiate activity has been found to be elevated in two studies. Plasma cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP) has been found to be elevated in autistic children. A high rate of nonsuppression after dexamethasone and blunted or delayed growth hormone response to L-dopa have been found. Abnormal cell-mediated immunity has been replicated consistently in autism. Although several pharmacological trials have been conducted and shown promise in initial open trials, only "typical" antipsychotic drugs have shown replicable chronic ameliorating effects in double-blind trials. However, chronic neurotoxicity (tardive dyskinesia) has also been revealed. Findings of morphological changes in the cerebellum have been replicated. Findings in need of replication include diminished platelet function, increased baseline CSF homovanillic acid, decreased nerve cell adhesion molecule serum fragment, blunted prolactin response to fenfluramine, amelioration of symptoms by naltrexone and bromocriptine, reduced electroretinographic (ERG) b-wave amplitude, and morphological changes in the hippocampus, amygdala, and septal nuclei. In addition to refining and replicating past findings, future directions that may be fruitful include investigation of neurochemical aspects of platelet function, of interactions between monoaminergic systems, of phosphatidylinositides, and of pharmacological response to "atypical" antipsychotic agents and relatively selective serotonin receptor subtype agonists or antagonists.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Autistic Disorder / blood
  • Autistic Disorder / cerebrospinal fluid
  • Autistic Disorder / enzymology
  • Autistic Disorder / genetics
  • Autistic Disorder / metabolism*
  • Autistic Disorder / pathology
  • Blood Platelets / metabolism
  • Catecholamines / blood
  • Catecholamines / cerebrospinal fluid
  • Catecholamines / metabolism
  • Cyclic AMP / metabolism
  • Hormones / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Hydroxyindoleacetic Acid / cerebrospinal fluid
  • Narcotics / metabolism
  • Serotonin / blood
  • Serotonin / metabolism


  • Catecholamines
  • Hormones
  • Narcotics
  • Serotonin
  • Hydroxyindoleacetic Acid
  • Cyclic AMP