It has been suggested that the restricted, stereotyped and repetitive behaviours typically found in autism are underpinned by deficits of inhibitory control. The biological basis of this is unknown but may include differences in the modulatory role of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, which are implicated in the condition. However, this has never been tested directly. We therefore assessed the modifying role of serotonin on inhibitory brain function during a Go/No-Go task in 14 adults with autism and normal intelligence and 14 control subjects that did not differ in gender, age and intelligence. We undertook a double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover trial of acute tryptophan depletion using functional magnetic resonance imaging. Following sham, adults with autism relative to controls had reduced activation in key inhibitory regions of inferior frontal cortex and thalamus, but increased activation of caudate and cerebellum. However, brain activation was modulated in opposite ways by depletion in each group. Within autistic individuals depletion upregulated fronto-thalamic activations and downregulated striato-cerebellar activations toward control sham levels, completely ‘normalizing’ the fronto-cerebellar dysfunctions. The opposite pattern occurred in controls. Moreover, the severity of autism was related to the degree of differential modulation by depletion within frontal, striatal and thalamic regions. Our findings demonstrate that individuals with autism have abnormal inhibitory networks, and that serotonin has a differential, opposite, effect on them in adults with and without autism. Together these factors may partially explain the severity of autistic behaviours and/or provide a novel (tractable) treatment target.
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