Altered serotonin synthesis in the dentatothalamocortical pathway in autistic boys

Ann Neurol. 1997 Oct;42(4):666-9. doi: 10.1002/ana.410420420.


Based on reports of increased platelet serotonin in 30 to 50% of autistic subjects, abnormal serotonergic neurotransmission may be important in the pathogenesis of autism. However, serotonin metabolite measurements in cerebrospinal fluid of autistic subjects have failed to demonstrate consistent abnormalities. Using alpha-[11C]methyl-L-tryptophan as a tracer for serotonin synthesis with positron emission tomography, we now report unilateral alterations of serotonin synthesis in the dentatothalamocortical pathway in autistic boys. Asymmetries of serotonin synthesis were found in frontal cortex, thalamus, and dentate nucleus of the cerebellum in all 7 boys, but not in the 1 autistic girl studied. Decreased serotonin synthesis was found in the left frontal cortex and thalamus in 5 of the 7 boys and in the right frontal cortex and thalamus in the 2 remaining autistic boys. In all 7 cases, elevated serotonin synthesis in the contralateral dentate nucleus was observed. Statistically significant differences between autistic boys and their nonautistic siblings (n = 5) were obtained when comparing asymmetry indices for frontal cortex, thalamus, and dentate nucleus combined as well as individually for frontal cortex and thalamus. These serotonergic abnormalities in a brain pathway, important for language production and sensory integration, may represent one mechanism underlying the pathophysiology of autism.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Autistic Disorder / diagnostic imaging
  • Autistic Disorder / metabolism*
  • Brain Chemistry / physiology*
  • Cerebral Cortex / cytology
  • Cerebral Cortex / metabolism
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Dentate Gyrus / cytology
  • Dentate Gyrus / metabolism
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Neural Pathways / metabolism
  • Serotonin / biosynthesis*
  • Thalamus / cytology
  • Thalamus / metabolism
  • Tomography, Emission-Computed


  • Serotonin