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Abnormal circadian rhythm and cortisol excretion in autistic children: a clinical study

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      To determine the circadian rhythm alteration of cortisol excretion and the level of corticosteroids in children with different grades of autism severity.


      The study included 45 children with different grades of autism severity (low [LFA], medium [MFA], and high functioning autism [HFA]), 15 in each group, and 45 age/sex-matched children with typical development. The urinary levels of free cortisol (at three phases of 24-hour cycle), corticosteroids, vanilylmandelic acid, and 5-hydroxyindole acetic acid were determined.


      Alteration in the pattern of cortisol excretion (Phases I, II, and III) was observed in children with LFA (Phase I: 43.8 ± 4.43 vs 74.30±8.62, P = 0.000; Phase II: 21.1±2.87 vs 62±7.68, P < 0.001; Phase III: 9.9 ± 1.20 vs 40 ± 5.73, P < 0.001) and MFA (Phase I: 43.8 ± 4.43 vs 52.6±7.90, P < 0.001; Phase II: 21.1±2.87 vs 27.4±4.05, P < 0.001; Phase III: 9.9 ± 1.20 vs 19 ± 2.50, P < 0.001) compared to the control group. The corticosteroids excretion levels were higher in all the groups of children with autism than in the control group. The level of 5-hydroxyindole acetic acid was significantly higher in children with LFA (8.2±1.48 vs 6.8±0.85, P < 0.001) and MFA (8.2±1.48 vs 7.4± 0.89, P = 0.001) and not significantly higher in children with HFA than in the control group. The changes were correlated with degrees of severity of the disorder.


      These data suggest that altered cortisol excretion pattern and high level of corticosteroids in urine may probably be a consequence of altered hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis function, which may contribute to the pathogenesis and affect the severity of autism.

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      Most cited references 41

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      The genetics of mammalian circadian order and disorder: implications for physiology and disease.

      Circadian cycles affect a variety of physiological processes, and disruptions of normal circadian biology therefore have the potential to influence a range of disease-related pathways. The genetic basis of circadian rhythms is well studied in model organisms and, more recently, studies of the genetic basis of circadian disorders has confirmed the conservation of key players in circadian biology from invertebrates to humans. In addition, important advances have been made in understanding how these molecules influence physiological functions in tissues throughout the body. Together, these studies set the scene for applying our knowledge of circadian biology to the understanding and treatment of a range of human diseases, including cancer and metabolic and behavioural disorders.
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        Genetics of autism: complex aetiology for a heterogeneous disorder.

        Since autism was first recognized as a disorder in 1943, speculation about its aetiology has ranged from biological to psychological and back again. After twin studies during the 1970s and 1980s yielded unequivocal evidence for a genetic component, aetiological research in autism began to focus primarily on uncovering the genetic mechanisms involved. The identification of chromosomal abnormalities and Mendelian syndromes among individuals with autism, in conjunction with data from genome screens and candidate-gene studies, has helped to refine the view of the complex genetics that underlies autism spectrum conditions.
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          Neuropathological findings in autism.

          Autism is currently viewed as a largely genetically determined neurodevelopmental disorder, although its underlying biological causes remain to be established. In this review, we examine the available neuropathological literature on autism and discuss the findings that have emerged. Classic neuropathological observations are rather consistent with respect to the limbic system (nine of 14 studied cases showed increased cell packing density and smaller neuronal size), the cerebellum (21 of 29 studied cases showed a decreased number of Purkinje cells, and in all of five cases that were examined for age-related morphological alterations, these changes were found in cerebellar nuclei and inferior olive) and the cerebral cortex (>50% of the studied cases showed features of cortical dysgenesis). However, all reported studies had to contend with the problem of small sample sizes, the use of quantification techniques not free of bias and assumptions, and high percentages of autistic subjects with comorbid mental retardation (at least 70%) or epilepsy (at least 40%). Furthermore, data from the limbic system and on age-related changes lack replication by independent groups. It is anticipated that future neuropathological studies hold great promise, especially as new techniques such as design-based stereology and gene expression are increasingly implemented and combined, larger samples are analysed, and younger subjects free of comorbidities are investigated.

            Author and article information

            [1 ]Department of Biochemistry, Bharathi Women’s College, University of Madras, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
            [2 ]Madras Medical College and Pediatrician Institute of Child Health and Hospital for Children, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
            Author notes
            Correspondence to: 
Geetha Arumugam
Department of Biochemistry
Bharathi Women’s College (Affiliated to University of Madras)
North Chennai – 600 108, Tamil Nadu, India
            Croat Med J
            Croat. Med. J
            Croatian Medical Journal
            Croatian Medical Schools
            February 2013
            : 54
            : 1
            : 33-41
            Copyright © 2013 by the Croatian Medical Journal. All rights reserved.

            This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

            Clinical Science



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