The biological basis of autism spectrum disorders: Understanding causation and treatment by clinical geneticists

Acta Neurobiol Exp (Wars). 2010;70(2):209-26. doi: 10.55782/ane-2010-1792.


Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) also known as pervasive developmental disorders (PDD) are a behaviorally defined group of neurodevelopmental disorders that are usually diagnosed in early childhood. ASDs disproportionately affect male children. Mercury (Hg) a heavy metal, is widespread and persistent in the environment. Mercury is a ubiquitous source of danger in fish, drugs, fungicides/herbicides, dental fillings, thermometers, and many other products. Elevated Hg concentrations may remain in the brain from several years to decades following exposure. This is important because investigators have long recognized that Hg is a neurodevelopmental poison; it can cause problems in neuronal cell migration and division, and can ultimately cause cell degeneration and death. Case-reports of patients have described developmental regressions with ASD symptoms following fetal and/or early childhood Hg exposure, and epidemiological studies have linked exposure to Hg with an elevated risk of a patient being diagnosed with an ASD. Immune, sensory, neurological, motor, and behavioral dysfunctions similar to traits defining or associated with ASDs were reported following Hg intoxication with similarities extending to neuroanatomy, neurotransmitters, and biochemistry. The sexual dimorphism of ASDs may result from synergistic neurotoxicity caused by the interaction of testosterone and Hg; in contrast, estrogen is protective, mitigating the toxicity of Hg. Mercury exposure may significantly increase androgen levels, and as a result, patients diagnosed with an ASD may significantly benefit from anti-androgen therapy. Finally, the clinical geneticist has a wealth of biomarkers to evaluate and treat patients diagnosed with an ASD.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Autistic Disorder / chemically induced*
  • Autistic Disorder / epidemiology
  • Autistic Disorder / genetics*
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Environmental Exposure / adverse effects
  • Estradiol / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Male
  • Mercury / toxicity*
  • Mercury Poisoning, Nervous System / epidemiology
  • Mercury Poisoning, Nervous System / genetics
  • Methylmercury Compounds / toxicity
  • Testosterone / physiology*
  • Thimerosal / adverse effects*


  • Methylmercury Compounds
  • Thimerosal
  • Testosterone
  • Estradiol
  • Mercury