BACKGROUND: Autism is accompanied by peripheral and central disorders in the metabolism of serotonin (5-HT). The present study examines plasma dehydroepiandrosterone-sulphate (DHEA-S) and the cortisol/DHEA-S ratio following administration of L-5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), the direct precursor of 5-HT, to autistic patients.
METHODS: Plasma DHEA-S levels were determined both before and after administration of 5-HTP or placebo, on two consecutive days in a single blind order in 18 male autistic patients and 22 matched healthy controls.
RESULTS: The 5-HTP-induced DHEA-S responses were significantly higher in autistic patients than in controls. In baseline conditions, the cortisol/DHEA-S ratio was significantly higher in autistic patients than in controls.
DISCUSSION: The results suggest that autism is accompanied by a major disequilibrium in the serotonergic system. The increased Cortisol (neurotoxic) versus DHEA-S (neuroprotective) ratio suggests that an increased neurotoxic potential occurs in autism.
CONCLUSIONS: It is concluded that a disequilibrium in the peripheral and central turnover of serotonin and an increased neurotoxic capacity by glucocorticoids are important pathways in autism.