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New Study Links Autism Spectrum Disorder to Disrupted Developmental Dopamine

15 May 2024

By Eileen Leahy, Chhavi Chauhan, PhD

A novel therapeutic target could revolutionize the way we approach treatment of autism spectrum disorder, reports The American Journal of Pathology

Recent evidence suggests that dopamine plays a crucial role in neural development. In a novel studyopens in new tab/window, investigators demonstrated the link between disrupted developmental dopamine signaling and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Their findings underscore the importance of studying developmental signaling pathways to understand the etiology of ASD, paving the way for potential targeted interventions. Their findings appear in The American Journal of Pathologyopens in new tab/window, published by Elsevier.

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, explain, “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.”

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.

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.

Notes for editors

The article is “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 ( in new tab/window). It appears in The American Journal of Pathology, volume 194, issue 6 (June 2024), published by Elsevier.

The article is openly available at in new tab/window.

Full text of the article is also available to credentialed journalists upon request. Contact Eileen Leahy at +1 732 406 1313 or [email protected]opens in new tab/window to request a PDF of the article or more information. To reach the authors directly contactLingyan Xing, PhD, at [email protected]opens in new tab/window.

This study was supported by the National Key R&D Program of China grant 2022YFA1105900, and the National Natural Science Foundation of China grant 81701127.

About The American Journal of Pathology

The American Journal of Pathologyopens in new tab/window, official journal of the American Society for Investigative Pathologyopens in new tab/window, published by Elsevier, seeks high-quality original research reports, reviews, and commentaries related to the molecular and cellular basis of disease. The editors will consider basic, translational, and clinical investigations that directly address mechanisms of pathogenesis or provide a foundation for future mechanistic inquiries. Examples of such foundational investigations include data mining, identification of biomarkers, molecular pathology, and discovery research. High priority is given to studies of human disease and relevant experimental models using molecular, cellular, and organismal approaches. https://ajp.amjpathol.orgopens in new tab/window

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Eileen Leahy


+1 732 406 1313

E-mail Eileen Leahy


Chhavi Chauhan, PhD

Director of Scientific Outreach

The American Journal of Pathology

+1 240 283 9724

E-mail Chhavi Chauhan, PhD