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Keywords:

  • serotonin;
  • autism;
  • postmortem;
  • human;
  • brain

Abstract

Autism causes neuropathological changes in varied anatomical loci. A coherent neural mechanism to explain the spectrum of autistic symptomatology has not been proposed because most anatomical researchers focus on point-to-point functional neural systems (e.g., auditory and social networks) rather than considering global chemical neural systems. Serotonergic neurons have a global innervation pattern. Disorders Research Program, AS073234, Program Project (JW). Their cell bodies are found in the midbrain but they project their axons throughout the neural axis beginning in the fetal brain. This global system is implicated in autism by animal models and by biochemical, imaging, pharmacological, and genetics studies. However, no anatomical studies of the 5-HT innervation of autistic donors have been reported. Our review presents immunocytochemical evidence of an increase in 5-HT axons in postmortem brain tissue from autism donors aged 2.8–29 years relative to controls. This increase is observed in the principle ascending fiber bundles of the medial and lateral forebrain bundles, and in the innervation density of the amygdala and the piriform, superior temporal, and parahippocampal cortices. In autistic donors 8 years of age and up, several types of dystrophic 5-HT axons were seen in the termination fields. One class of these dystrophic axons, the thick heavily stained axons, was not seen in the brains of patients with neurodegenerative diseases. These findings provide morphological evidence for the involvement of serotonin neurons in the early etiology of autism, and suggest new therapies may be effective to blunt serotonin's trophic actions during early brain development in children. Anat Rec, 2011. © 2011 Wiley-Liss, Inc.