Neurometabolic disorders and dysfunction in autism spectrum disorders
(National Institutes of Mental Health, Bethesda, MD)
The cause of autism remains largely unknown because it is likely multifactorial, arising from the interaction of biologic, genetic, and environmental factors. The specific role of metabolic abnormalities also is largely unknown, but current research may provide insight into the pathophysiologic underpinnings of autism, at least in some patients. We review a number of known neurometabolic disorders identified as having an autistic phenotype. We also discuss the possible involvement of mitochondrial disorders and dysfunction as well as a theory regarding an increased vulnerability to oxidative stress, by which various environmental toxins produce metabolic alterations that impair normal cellular function. Finally, we review various strategies for metabolic work-up and treatment. Accurate diagnosis of neurometabolic disorders and a broader understanding of underlying metabolic disturbance even in the absence of known disease have important implications both for individual patients and for research into the etiology of autism.