Autism Spectrum Disorders and Drug Addiction: Common Pathways, Common Molecules, Distinct Disorders?

Front Neurosci. 2016 Feb 5;10:20. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2016.00020. eCollection 2016.


Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) and drug addiction do not share substantial comorbidity or obvious similarities in etiology or symptomatology. It is thus surprising that a number of recent studies implicate overlapping neural circuits and molecular signaling pathways in both disorders. The purpose of this review is to highlight this emerging intersection and consider implications for understanding the pathophysiology of these seemingly distinct disorders. One area of overlap involves neural circuits and neuromodulatory systems in the striatum and basal ganglia, which play an established role in addiction and reward but are increasingly implicated in clinical and preclinical studies of ASDs. A second area of overlap relates to molecules like Fragile X mental retardation protein (FMRP) and methyl CpG-binding protein-2 (MECP2), which are best known for their contribution to the pathogenesis of syndromic ASDs, but have recently been shown to regulate behavioral and neurobiological responses to addictive drug exposure. These shared pathways and molecules point to common dimensions of behavioral dysfunction, including the repetition of behavioral patterns and aberrant reward processing. The synthesis of knowledge gained through parallel investigations of ASDs and addiction may inspire the design of new therapeutic interventions to correct common elements of striatal dysfunction.

Keywords: accumbens; addiction; autism; dopamine; medium spiny neuron; striatum; synapse.

Publication types

  • Review