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Hormone levels in fluid around brain could be an autism biomarker

Vasopressin levels are low in the cerebrospinal fluid of less-social rhesus monkeys and in people with autism, the study found. The discovery suggests that it may be possible to design a lab test to identify autism in kids.

Autism diagnosis is slow and cumbersome, but new findings from Stanford and the University of California, Davis, could help change that.

New research published today in Science Translational Medicine shows that a hormone called vasopressin, which affects social behavior, may be a good autism biomarker. Vasopressin levels are low in the cerebrospinal fluid of less-social rhesus monkeys and in people with autism, the study found. The discovery suggests that it may be possible to design a lab test to identify autism in kids.

From our press release:

'Since autism affects the brain, it’s really hard to access the biology of the condition to know what might be altered,' said Karen Parker, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford and the lead author of the new study. 'Right now, the diagnosis is based on parents’ reports of their children’s symptoms, and on clinicians observing children in the clinic.'

Parker collaborated on the work with John Capitanio, PhD, of UC Davis. They studied blood and cerebrospinal fluid levels of a few different potential biomarkers in rhesus monkeys, comparing samples from monkeys with naturally low social abilities to those from highly social monkeys. Blood test results weren't informative, but CSF, which surrounds the brain, showed vasopressin differences linked to low versus high sociability.

The researchers confirmed the importance of vasopressin using CSF samples from kids with autism and without, all of whom were having CSF sampled for medical reasons and whose families had agreed to participate in the research.

"The human CSF samples are liquid gold," Parker told me, noting that it's unusual to have access to such samples for research.

The team was also checking for differences in levels of oxytocin, which has been the focus of more research and public attention than its close relative, vasopressin.

But Parker, whose prior work helped show that vasopressin is especially significant for parental and pair-bonding behaviors in males, and thought it was worth investigating vasopressin's role in autism biology. She thought the fact that autism disproportionately affects boys might be an important clue.

"Everyone who reviewed our grants was convinced we would find oxytocin was altered," she told me. "I actually was cheering for vasopressin. At a gut level, it made sense to me that that may be where we see alterations."

Her team’s investigation of vasopressin-autism links is ongoing.

Photo by Thomas Hawk

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