Biomarkers of mitochondrial dysfunction in autism spectrum disorder: A systematic review and meta-analysis

Neurobiol Dis. 2024 May 3:197:106520. doi: 10.1016/j.nbd.2024.106520. Online ahead of print.


Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder affecting 1 in 36 children and is associated with physiological abnormalities, most notably mitochondrial dysfunction, at least in a subset of individuals. This systematic review and meta-analysis discovered 204 relevant articles which evaluated biomarkers of mitochondrial dysfunction in ASD individuals. Significant elevations (all p < 0.01) in the prevalence of lactate (17%), pyruvate (41%), alanine (15%) and creatine kinase (9%) were found in ASD. Individuals with ASD had significant differences (all p < 0.01) with moderate to large effect sizes (Cohen's d' ≥ 0.6) compared to controls in mean pyruvate, lactate-to-pyruvate ratio, ATP, and creatine kinase. Some studies found abnormal TCA cycle metabolites associated with ASD. Thirteen controlled studies reported mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) deletions or variations in the ASD group in blood, peripheral blood mononuclear cells, lymphocytes, leucocytes, granulocytes, and brain. Meta-analyses discovered significant differences (p < 0.01) in copy number of mtDNA overall and in ND1, ND4 and CytB genes. Four studies linked specific mtDNA haplogroups to ASD. A series of studies found a subgroup of ASD with elevated mitochondrial respiration which was associated with increased sensitivity of the mitochondria to physiological stressors and neurodevelopmental regression. Lactate, pyruvate, lactate-to-pyruvate ratio, carnitine, and acyl-carnitines were associated with clinical features such as delays in language, social interaction, cognition, motor skills, and with repetitive behaviors and gastrointestinal symptoms, although not all studies found an association. Lactate, carnitine, acyl-carnitines, ATP, CoQ10, as well as mtDNA variants, heteroplasmy, haplogroups and copy number were associated with ASD severity. Variability was found across biomarker studies primarily due to differences in collection and processing techniques as well as the intrinsic heterogeneity of the ASD population. Several studies reported alterations in mitochondrial metabolism in mothers of children with ASD and in neonates who develop ASD. Treatments targeting mitochondria, particularly carnitine and ubiquinol, appear beneficial in ASD. The link between mitochondrial dysfunction in ASD and common physiological abnormalities in individuals with ASD including gastrointestinal disorders, oxidative stress, and immune dysfunction is outlined. Several subtypes of mitochondrial dysfunction in ASD are discussed, including one related to neurodevelopmental regression, another related to alterations in microbiome metabolites, and another related to elevations in acyl-carnitines. Mechanisms linking abnormal mitochondrial function with alterations in prenatal brain development and postnatal brain function are outlined. Given the multisystem complexity of some individuals with ASD, this review presents evidence for the mitochondria being central to ASD by contributing to abnormalities in brain development, cognition, and comorbidities such as immune and gastrointestinal dysfunction as well as neurodevelopmental regression. A diagnostic approach to identify mitochondrial dysfunction in ASD is outlined. From this evidence, it is clear that many individuals with ASD have alterations in mitochondrial function which may need to be addressed in order to achieve optimal clinical outcomes. The fact that alterations in mitochondrial metabolism may be found during pregnancy and early in the life of individuals who eventually develop ASD provides promise for early life predictive biomarkers of ASD. Further studies may improve the understanding of the role of the mitochondria in ASD by better defining subgroups and understanding the molecular mechanisms driving some of the unique changes found in mitochondrial function in those with ASD.

Keywords: Autism Spectrum disorder; Biomarkers; Environmental genetic interactions; Meta-analysis; Mitochondrial DNA; Mitochondrial dysfunction; Mitochondrial respiration; Neurodevelopmental regression.

Publication types

  • Review