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Spectrum: Autism Research News

Community Newsletter: Dopamine signaling, gut disorders and anxiety, gender dysphoria in autism

by  /  20 June 2021
Many mouths making conversation, with speech bubbles in red and blue.
Illustration by Laurène Boglio

Hello, and welcome to this week’s Community Newsletter! I’m your host, Chelsey B. Coombs, Spectrum’s engagement editor. We’ve got some great tweets for you this week, so let’s dive in.

Our first thread comes from Robert McCutcheon, clinical research fellow in psychiatry at King’s College London in the United Kingdom, who discussed his new study in Science Advances.

Previous research has shown that cortical activity and dopamine in the striatum are often disrupted in conditions such as autism, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The new work confirmed the cortical connection and found that striatal dopamine is also linked to the expression of genes associated with those conditions.

In another dopamine-related thread, Elvira De Leonibus, head of the Behavioral Core at the Telethon Institute of Genetics and Medicine in Pozzuoli, Italy, talked about her team’s new research in Nature Communications.

Children with lysosomal storage disorders, caused by changes in heparan sulfate metabolism, show autism-like behaviors, which can lead to misdiagnoses.

Like the first study in this newsletter, changes in dopamine signaling are key to those behaviors in a mouse model of mucopolysaccharidosis type IIIA, De Leonibus’ team found.

The results support the idea that changes in heparan-sulfate-related gene function are linked to autism, the researchers wrote.

Our next thread this week comes from Oscar Wong, assistant professor of psychiatry at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in Shatin, Hong Kong. The study, published in Autism Research, sought to understand the relationship between gastrointestinal disorders and anxiety in autistic children.

In autistic boys aged 4 to 11 years, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain are associated with increased anxiety, Wong and his colleagues found. By contrast, non-autistic boys with those same symptoms did not show increased anxiety.

“This suggests that anxiety among autistic children could be partly explained by the presence of [functional gastrointestinal disorders],” the researchers wrote.

Our final thread is from Meng-Chuan Lai, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto in Canada. As Spectrum has previously written, autistic people are more likely to be gender-diverse than are non-autistic people. Lai’s new study in Autism explores the long-term predictors and underlying mechanisms involved.

Lai and his team found that autistic young adults who selected, “I wish I was the opposite sex,” in a survey also reported more mental health challenges, bullying, suicidal ideations and worse quality of life. And parent reports revealed that lower family support and more stereotyped behaviors in childhood and adolescence predicted that survey response.

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, help is available. Here is a worldwide directory of resources and hotlines that you can call for support.

That’s it for this week’s Spectrum Community Newsletter! If you have any suggestions for interesting social posts you saw in the autism research sphere, feel free to send an email to me at [email protected]. See you next week!