A biological marker in infants that appears to predict an autism diagnosis has been identified in a small study led by researchers at the School of Medicine.
The study of 33 individuals showed that the biomarker, a hormone called vasopressin, was present at lower levels during infancy in the cerebrospinal fluid of babies who were later diagnosed with autism than in those who were not. CSF surrounds the brain and spinal cord.
The results were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“When young children aren’t appropriately processing basic social stimuli early in life, it puts their brains on a different developmental trajectory,” said Karen Parker, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. Although autism can be diagnosed with behavioral symptoms around 2 years of age, shortages of autism specialists often delay diagnosis until age 4 or later, causing children to miss the benefits of early treatment. “If we could identify these children earlier, we could intervene earlier,” Parker said.
The study’s lead author is Ozge Oztan, Ph.D., a research scientist in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford. Parker shares senior authorship of the paper with John Constantino, MD, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Washington University in St. Louis.
A small protein hormone
Autism is a developmental disorder characterized by impaired social skills, repetitive behavior patterns, and restricted interests. Early intervention can have lasting benefits for affected children.
Vasopressin is a protein hormone that’s just nine amino acids long. It affects social behaviors in male mammals, such as pair-bonding and fathering, and differs by only two amino acids from another, better-known protein hormone with social roles: oxytocin.