Cholinergic abnormalities in autism: is there a rationale for selective nicotinic agonist interventions?

Clin Neuropharmacol. 2010 May;33(3):114-20. doi: 10.1097/WNF.0b013e3181d6f7ad.


The core dysfunctions of autism spectrum disorders, which include autistic disorder, Asperger disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified, include deficits in socialization and communication and a need for the preservation of "sameness;" intellectual impairment and epilepsy are common comorbidities. Data suggest that pathological involvement of cholinergic nuclei and altered expression of acetylcholine receptors, particularly nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, occur in brain of persons with autistic disorder. However, many of these studies involved postmortem tissue from small samples of primarily adult persons. Thus, the findings may reflect compensatory changes and may relate more closely to intellectual impairment and the confounding effects of seizures and medications, as opposed to the core dysfunctions of autism. Nonetheless, because of the roles played by acetylcholine receptors in general, and nicotinic acetylcholine receptors in particular, in normal processes of attention, cognition, and memory, selective cholinergic interventions should be explored for possible therapeutic effects. Additionally, there are electrophysiological data that complement the clinical observations of frequent comorbid seizure disorders in these patients, suggesting a disturbance in the balance of excitatory and inhibitory tone in the brains of persons with autistic disorders. Conceivably, because the alpha7 nicotinic acetylcholine receptor is located on the surface of gamma-aminobutyric acid inhibitory neurons, selective stimulation of this receptor would promote gamma-aminobutyric acid's release and restore diminished inhibitory tone. The development of agonists and partial agonists for nicotinic acetylcholine receptors and positive allosteric modulators that enhance the efficiency of coupling between the binding of agonist and channel opening should facilitate consideration of clinical trials.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Animals
  • Attention / drug effects
  • Brain / drug effects
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Brain / pathology
  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Child
  • Child Development Disorders, Pervasive / drug therapy*
  • Child Development Disorders, Pervasive / pathology
  • Child Development Disorders, Pervasive / physiopathology*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Humans
  • Mental Processes / drug effects
  • Neural Inhibition / drug effects
  • Neurons / drug effects
  • Neurons / metabolism
  • Nicotinic Agonists / pharmacology
  • Nicotinic Agonists / therapeutic use*
  • Receptors, Cholinergic / physiology
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / physiology*
  • Synaptic Transmission / drug effects
  • Young Adult
  • alpha7 Nicotinic Acetylcholine Receptor


  • Chrna7 protein, human
  • Nicotinic Agonists
  • Receptors, Cholinergic
  • Receptors, Nicotinic
  • alpha7 Nicotinic Acetylcholine Receptor