The Neurobiological Context of Autism

Flavio Keller, Antonio M. Persico

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Autistic disorder (AD) is a complex neuropsychiatric disorder of neurodevelopmental origin, where multiple genetic and environmental factors may interact, resulting in a clinical continuum. The genetic component is best described by a multilocus model that takes into account epistatic interactions between several susceptibility genes. In the past ten years enormous progress has been made in identifying chromosomal regions in linkage with AD, but moving from chromosomal regions to candidate genes has proven to be tremendously difficult. Neuroanatomical findings point to early dysgenetic events taking place in the cerebral cortex, cerebellum, and brainstem. At the cellular level, disease mechanisms may include altered cell migration, increased cell proliferation, decreased cell death, or altered synapse elimination. Neurochemical findings in AD point to involvement of multiple neurotransmitter systems. The serotoninergic system has been intensively investigated in AD, but other neurotrasmitter systems (e.g., the GABAergic and the cholinergic system) are also coming under closer scrutiny. The role of environmental factors is still poorly characterized. It is not clear yet whether environmental factors act merely as precipitating agents, always requiring an underlying genetic liability, or whether they represent an essential component of a pathogenetic process where genetic liability alone does not lead to the full-blown autism phenotype. A third potential player in the pathogenesis of autism, in addition to genetic and environmental factors, is developmental variability due to "randóm" factors, e.g. small fluctuations of gene expression and complex, non-deterministic interactions between genes during brain development. These considerations suggest that a non-deterministic conceptual framework is highly appropriate for autism research.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-22
Number of pages22
JournalMolecular Neurobiology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2003


  • Acetylcholine
  • Animal models
  • ARX
  • Autism
  • Development
  • GABA
  • Genetics
  • Hoxa1
  • Oxytocin
  • Reelin
  • Serotonin
  • Wnt-2

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Physiology


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