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Sex hormones may play a part in autism

Sex hormones may play a part in autism
09 Sep 2014

Higher rates of Autism Spectrum Disorders in males than females may be related to changes in the brain’s estrogen signalling, according to research published in the open access journal Molecular Autism.

The study examined the brains of people that had Autism Spectrum Disorders compared to controls, and found that they are linked with far lower levels of a key estrogen receptor and other estrogen-related proteins. Because of the small group size, these results indicate an exciting avenue for further research, rather than confirming a role for altered estrogen signalling in Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Anilkumar Pillai, lead author, says: “Our study is the first indicator that estrogen receptors in the brain of Autism Spectrum Disorder patients may be different to controls. Though this suggests a possible reason for the gender bias, we still need to determine what causes the reduced production of estrogen-related proteins.”

Autism Spectrum Disorders are a group of disorders that affect brain development, and are commonly recognized by impaired social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication, and restricted and repetitive behavior. The disorders appear to have a genetic basis and are around four times more common in men than in women. Autism Spectrum Disorders have been associated with higher levels of the sex hormone testosterone , but whether there is a relationship between the disorders and estrogen signalling was not known.

A group of researchers from Georgia Regents University measured the expression of proteins involved in the estrogen signalling pathway in brain tissue from 13 people that had Autism Spectrum Disorders and 13 controls. The low numbers involved in the study are because brain tissue for experimental use from individuals that had Autism spectrum Disorders is quite scarce. They looked for levels of ERβ - an estrogen receptor molecule, and aromatase, an enzyme which converts testosterone to estradiol, the most potent estrogen.

They found 35% less ERβ mRNA and 38% less aromatase mRNA in autistic brain tissue in comparison with controls. They also found much less of the mRNA of estrogen receptor co-factors SRC1, CBP and P/CAF - 34%, 77% and 52% respectively. The lower levels of estrogen receptors and aromatase could lead to reduced conversion of testosterone to estradiol, resulting in increased levels of testosterone.

Anilkumar Pillai says “It is worth looking at whether drugs which modulate estrogen reception, but do not cause feminization, could allow for the long-term treatment of male patients with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Current treatment involves the use of antipsychotics, which has long been a major concern as these patients are typically still in a stage of life where brain development is very rapid. However, additional studies are needed to test the estrogen mechanism.”

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Notes to Editor

1. Research
Dysregulation of Estrogen Receptor beta (ERbeta), Aromatase (CYP19A1) and ER Co-activators in the middle frontal gyrus of autism spectrum disorder subjects
Amanda Crider, Roshni Thakkar, Anthony o Ahmed and Anilkumar Pillai
Molecular Autism 2014, 5: 46. doi:10.1186/2040-2392-5-46

Article available at journal website here.

Please name the journal in any story you write. If you are writing for the web, please link to the article. All articles are available free of charge, according to BioMed Central's open access policy.

2. Molecular Autism is a peer-reviewed, online open access journal that publishes high-quality basic, translational and clinical research that has relevance to the etiology, pathobiology, or treatment of autism and related neurodevelopmental conditions. Research that includes integration across levels is encouraged. Molecular Autism publishes empirical studies, reviews, and brief communications.

3. BioMed Central is an STM (Science, Technology and Medicine) publisher which has pioneered the open access publishing model. All peer-reviewed research articles published by BioMed Central are made immediately and freely accessible online, and are licensed to allow redistribution and reuse. BioMed Central is part of Springer Science+Business Media, a leading global publisher in the STM sector.