Developmental Twist – New Study Links Autism to Disrupted Dopamine

Autistic Child Staring

Recent research has highlighted the significant role of dopamine in neural development and its link to autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Leading investigators from Nantong University discovered correlations between disrupted dopaminergic signaling and neural development abnormalities in both human and zebrafish models. These findings open new avenues for understanding autism’s etiology and developing targeted therapeutic interventions.

A new study reports that a new therapeutic target could transform how we treat autism spectrum disorder.

Recent research indicates that dopamine is critical in neural development. A novel study has shown a connection between impaired dopamine signaling during development and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). These results emphasize the need to explore developmental signaling pathways to grasp the origins of ASD, potentially leading to targeted treatments. The study was published in The American Journal of Pathology.

“While dopamine is commonly recognized as a neurotransmitter, its significance in the developmental aspects of autism is largely unexplored. Recent studies have highlighted the crucial roles of dopamine and serotonin in development and their importance in the construction of neural circuits. In addition, studies have indicated that the use of dopamine-related drugs during pregnancy is associated with an increased risk of autism in children. Armed with these tantalizing clues, we embarked on a mission to bridge the gap between dopamine’s known functions and its potential impact on neurodevelopmental disorders, particularly autism. Our quest was to uncover a novel therapeutic target that could revolutionize the way we approach autism treatment,” explain Lead investigators Lingyan Xing, PhD, and Gang Chen, PhD, Key Laboratory of Neuroregeneration of Jiangsu and the Ministry of Education, Co-innovation Center of Neuroregeneration, NMPA Key Laboratory for Research and Evaluation of Tissue Engineering Technology Products, Nantong University.

Research Methodology and Findings

Investigators studied the role of disrupted dopaminergic signaling in the etiology of ASD by integrating human brain RNA sequencing transcriptome analysis and a zebrafish model, recognized for its high degree of conservation with humans.

To analyze the developmental deficits in ASD systematically, two large publicly available data sets were retrieved from the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) Gene Expression Omnibus database and RNA sequencing data from Arkinglab. Transcriptome analysis of human brains revealed significant correlations between changes in dopaminergic signaling pathways and neural developmental signaling in patients with autism. This suggests a potential link between disrupted developmental dopamine signaling and autism pathology.

Dopamine Regulates Neuron Specification Graphic

This diagram shows that dopamine regulates neuron specification, suggesting its role in modulating neural circuits during development, potentially contributing to autism spectrum disorder–related phenotype. Credit: The American Journal of Pathology

To explore this link further researchers used the zebrafish model to study the effects of disrupted dopaminergic signaling on neural circuit development. They found that perturbations in developmental dopaminergic signaling led to neural circuit abnormalities and behavioral phenotypes reminiscent of autism in zebrafish larvae. The study also uncovered a potential mechanism by which dopamine impacts neuronal specification through the modulation of integrins.

Dr. Chen comments, “We were surprised by the extent of the impact that dopaminergic signaling has on neuronal specification in zebrafish, potentially laying the groundwork for circuit disruption in autism-related phenotype. Furthermore, the unexpected involvement of integrins as downstream targets of dopaminergic signaling provides new insights into the mechanisms underlying neurodevelopmental disorders.”

Dr. Xing concludes, “This research sheds light on the role of dopamine in neural circuit formation during early development, specifically in the context of autism. Understanding these mechanisms could lead to novel therapeutic interventions targeting dopaminergic signaling pathways to improve outcomes in individuals with autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders.”

ASD is a developmental disorder that usually manifests itself in early childhood. Although clinical outcomes vary greatly from case to case, autism is characterized by both a restricted interest in social interaction and repetitive behavior. This coincides with disruptions in brain connectivity shown by diffusion tension imaging. Studies have shown that several neurodevelopmental processes may be affected in ASD, including neurogenesis, neural migration, axon pathfinding, and synaptic formation, all of which can lead to neural circuit disruption.

Reference: “Developmental Dopaminergic Signaling Modulates Neural Circuit Formation and Contributes to Autism Spectrum Disorder–Related Phenotypes” by Xiaojuan Lu, Yixing Song, Jiaqi Wang, Yunyun Cai, Siwan Peng, Jiaqi Lin, Biqin Lai, Junjie Sun, Tianqing Liu, Gang Chen and Lingyan Xing, 16 March 2024, The American Journal of Pathology.
DOI: 10.1016/j.ajpath.2024.02.014

6 Comments on "Developmental Twist – New Study Links Autism to Disrupted Dopamine"

  1. Autistic Individual | May 21, 2024 at 5:56 pm | Reply

    deficits; healthy controls vs. individuals with autism; a restricted interest in social interaction and repetitive behavior; ASD

    I can’t stand how abelist these researchers are being in writing about autism.
    Some of the greatest minds if not the greatest minds in history were autistic or had ADHD.
    Call Einstein and Mozart deficient, unhealthy individuals, disordered.
    Stop calling people with disabilities (often caused by their sensitivity to overwhelming modern life that is also detrimental to neurotypical humans, not to mention millions of species going extinct.) deficient and unhealthy. You are deficient in your elitism and lack of empathy.

    • You do not speak for everyone with autism. There is a huge difference between those who are mildly autistic and those who are severely affected. 25% of those with autism can’t talk or function independently. Those on the severe end of the spectrum who can communicate wish they were not autistic, and that there was a cure. Do not drown out those who would rather be less neurodivergent.

    • Good on you to try to empower yourself somehow, but to do that by extolling autism as some sort of a virtue, just because of some “happy” historical cases, is misguided, damaging and, frankly, pathetic.

      By the way, Einstein “the genius” was also a wife beater and a serial cheater. So, there…

  2. Annoyed Auti | May 22, 2024 at 5:58 am | Reply

    Why oh why do we have a white boy staring at the screen as the image here? Doesn’t this continue to reinforce the image that this is a neurodevelopmental disorder that impacts white males, which stems from the historical flaws in Autistic studies throughout the years exclusively surveying white males, leading to bias in the medical community? Use a gold or rainbow infinity, please.

  3. Also-got-the-tism | May 23, 2024 at 3:14 am | Reply

    I cannot (jk I totally can) believe that the comments on research about how autism happens has people whining about a stock image not being queerpoc enough and someone being upset that science is “elitists, abelist, and lacking empathy”. As an autistic person myself, with an autistic sibling: we are both definitely deficient and disordered. Just because you do not FEEL that way does not make it less true. I am sure your own autism has it’s own flaws, maybe something to do with lack of critical thinking skills?

    My brother, who also has autism, has spent his life being extremely smart… and also engaging in self harm, has extreme rage, and now has other comorbities and can’t hold down a job. I’m sure his life would be easier if he didn’t have deficiencies in the way he processes things. I, myself, have struggled with social interaction, empathy, and other things. Would I wish autism upon someone? Absolutely not. If I could choose to have a neurological child vs a neurodivergent child, myself and others would always choose the 100% healthy baby. No one chooses to struggle in life, and to choose that for anyone else would be cruel.

    Keep your social commentary to Facebook if it isn’t relevant to science, all you’re doing is holding it back.

  4. Helen Raffertt | May 28, 2024 at 6:45 am | Reply

    This study means nothing and is not helpful to anyone with severe autism. No one know the cause of autism and this article is not informative or helpful in any way.

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