Microglial activation in young adults with autism spectrum disorder

JAMA Psychiatry. 2013 Jan;70(1):49-58. doi: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.272.


Context: A growing body of evidence suggests that aberrant immunologic systems underlie the pathophysiologic characteristics of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, to our knowledge, no information is available on the patterns of distribution of microglial activation in the brain in ASD.

Objectives: To identify brain regions associated with excessively activated microglia in the whole brain, and to examine similarities in the pattern of distribution of activated microglia in subjects with ASD and control subjects.

Design: Case-control study using positron emission tomography and a radiotracer for microglia--[11C](R)-(1-[2-chrorophynyl]-N-methyl-N-[1-methylpropyl]-3 isoquinoline carboxamide) ([11C](R)-PK11195).

Setting: Subjects recruited from the community.

Participants: Twenty men with ASD (age range, 18-31 years; mean [SD] IQ, 95.9 [16.7]) and 20 age- and IQ-matched healthy men as controls. Diagnosis of ASD was made in accordance with the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule and the Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised.

Main outcome measures: Regional brain [11C](R)-PK11195 binding potential as a representative measure of microglial activation.

Results: The [11C](R)-PK11195 binding potential values were significantly higher in multiple brain regions in young adults with ASD compared with those of controls (P < .05, corrected). Brain regions with increased binding potentials included the cerebellum, midbrain, pons, fusiform gyri, and the anterior cingulate and orbitofrontal cortices. The most prominent increase was observed in the cerebellum. The pattern of distribution of [11C](R)-PK11195 binding potential values in these brain regions of ASD and control subjects was similar, whereas the magnitude of the [11C](R)-PK11195 binding potential in the ASD group was greater than that of controls in all regions.

Conclusions: Our results indicate excessive microglial activation in multiple brain regions in young adult subjects with ASD. The similar distribution pattern of regional microglial activity in the ASD and control groups may indicate augmented but not altered microglial activation in the brain in the subjects with ASD.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Brain / pathology
  • Carbon Radioisotopes
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Child
  • Child Development Disorders, Pervasive / diagnostic imaging
  • Child Development Disorders, Pervasive / metabolism*
  • Child Development Disorders, Pervasive / pathology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Microglia / diagnostic imaging
  • Microglia / metabolism*
  • Positron-Emission Tomography / instrumentation
  • Positron-Emission Tomography / methods*
  • Young Adult


  • Carbon Radioisotopes