Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are classified as neurodevelopmental disorders characterised by diminished social communication and interaction. Recently, evidence has accrued that a significant proportion of individuals with autism have concomitant diseases such as mitochondrial disease and abnormalities of energy generation. This has therefore led to the hypothesis that autism may be linked to mitochondrial dysfunction. We review such studies reporting decreased activity of mitochondrial electron transport chain (ETC) complexes and reduced gene expression of mitochondrial genes, in particular genes of respiratory chain complexes, in individuals with autism. Overall, the findings support the hypothesis that there is an association of ASD with impaired mitochondrial function; however, many of the studies have small sample sizes and there is variability in the techniques utilised. There is therefore a vital need to utilise novel imaging techniques, such as near-infrared spectroscopy, that will allow non-invasive measurement of metabolic markers for neuronal activity such as cytochrome c oxidase, in order to better establish the link between autism and mitochondrial dysfunction.
Keywords: Autism; Electron transport chain; Energy metabolism; Mitochondrial deficiency; Mitochondrial dysfunction; Mitochondrial health.