Developmental neuroscience, 2017
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) comprises a group of neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by social deficits and stereotyped behaviors. While several theories have emerged, the pathogenesis of ASD remains unknown. Although studies report dopamine signaling abnormalities in autistic patients, a coherent dopamine hypothesis which could link neurobiology to behavior in ASD is currently lacking. In this paper, we present such a hypothesis by proposing that autistic behavior arises from dysfunctions in the midbrain dopaminergic system. We hypothesize that a dysfunction of the mesocorticolimbic circuit leads to social deficits, while a dysfunction of the nigrostriatal circuit leads to stereotyped behaviors. Furthermore, we discuss 2 key predictions of our hypothesis, with emphasis on clinical and therapeutic aspects. First, we argue that dopaminergic dysfunctions in the same circuits should associate with autistic-like behavior in nonautistic subjects. Concerning this, we discuss the case of PANDAS (pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorder associated with streptococcal infections) which displays behaviors similar to those of ASD, presumed to arise from dopaminergic dysfunctions. Second, we argue that providing dopamine modulators to autistic subjects should lead to a behavioral improvement. Regarding this, we present clinical studies of dopamine antagonists which seem to have improving effects on autistic behavior. Furthermore, we explore the means of testing our hypothesis by using neuroreceptor imaging, which could provide comprehensive evidence for dopamine signaling dysfunctions in autistic subjects. Lastly, we discuss the limitations of our hypothesis. Along these lines, we aim to provide a dopaminergic model of ASD which might lead to a better understanding of the ASD pathogenesis.