• Autism;
  • cortex;
  • ERK5;
  • neural apoptosis;
  • oxidative stress;
  • Ras/Raf/ERK1/2 signaling transduction

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impairments in social interaction, verbal communication and repetitive behaviors. A number of studies have shown that the Ras/Raf/ERK1/2 (extracellular signal-regulated kinase) signaling pathway plays important roles in the genesis of neural progenitors, learning and memory. Ras/Raf/ERK1/2 and ERK5 have also been shown to have death-promoting apoptotic roles in neural cells. Recent studies have shown a possible association between neural cell death and autism. In addition, two recent studies reported that a deletion of a locus on chromosome 16, which included the mitogen-activated protein kinase 3 (MAPK3) gene that encodes ERK1, is associated with autism. Most recently, our laboratory detected that Ras/Raf/ERK1/2 signaling activities were significantly enhanced in the brain of BTBR mice that model autism, as they exhibit many autism-like behaviors. We thus hypothesized that Ras/Raf/ERK1/2 signaling and ERK5 could be abnormally regulated in the brain of autistic subjects. In this study, we show that the expression of Ras protein was significantly elevated in the frontal cortex of autistic subjects. C-Raf phosphorylation was increased in the frontal cortex, while both C-Raf and A-Raf activities were enhanced in the cerebellum of autistic subjects. We also detected that both the protein expression and activities of ERK1/2 were significantly upregulated in the frontal cortex of autistic subjects, but not in the cerebellum. Furthermore, we showed that ERK5 protein expression is upregulated in both frontal cortex and cerebellum of autistic subjects. These results suggest that the upregulation of Ras/Raf/ERK1/2 signaling and ERK5 activities mainly found in the frontal cortex of autistic subjects may be critically involved in the pathogenesis of autism.