Researchers Find that Low Levels of Vasopressin in Infants May Predict Autism
While autism affects 1 in 54 children in the United States and countless others worldwide, its exact causes remain unknown. Through a new study, researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine have identified a biological marker in the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) of human infants, which may predict the future development of autism. According to a report by Genengnews.com, the researchers found that the hormone vasopressin was present at much lowers levels in the CSF of 0-3 month old infants who were later diagnosed with autism, compared with infants who were not diagnosed.
The study was led by Dr. Karen Parker, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University’s department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and Drs. Ozge Oztan and John Constantino, MD. Parker explained that even without medications, an early autism diagnosis can lead to behavioral interventions and more positive outcomes.
“When young children aren’t appropriately processing basic social stimuli early in life, it puts their brains on a different developmental trajectory,” Parker was quoted as saying. Due to long appointment wait times and shortages of autism specialists, diagnoses can often be delayed until 4 years old. As Parker explained, being able to identify those children earlier would allow for earlier interventions. In their study, the researchers explained that being able to rapidly detect autism based on a patient’s biological markers, when, or even before, a child’s symptoms emerge, “would revolutionize ASD detection and enable timely intervention.”
The hormone vasopressin, also known as AVP, affects social behaviors such pair-bonding and fathering in male mammals. Studies have found that disrupting’s the brain’s AVP signaling pathway impairs social skills in mice and voles. The researchers believe the effect may be similar in young humans. Previous studies by Parker and her team have found lower levels of vasopressin in children and teens with autism than in those without the condition, and that those with the lowest levels of vasopressin had the most severe autism. The researchers found that administering vasopressin improved social abilities in children with autism, while trials of the hormone oxytocin were inconsistent.
While the researchers acknowledge that a larger study is still needed, they believe the results of their new study are still scientifically important. For the next phase, the researchers would like to study CSF samples from children with other disorders, such as neuromuscular diseases that do not impair social skills, to determine whether the low CSF vasopressin is specific to autism.