The locus coeruleus has widespread connections to brain regions that process sensory information. It secretes most of the brain's noradrenaline, a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in arousal mechanisms, such as the "fight or flight" response. It is also involved in a variety of complex behaviors, such as attentional focusing (the ability to concentrate attention on environmental cues relevant to the task in hand, or to switch attention from one task to another). Poor attentional focusing is a defining characteristic of autism.
"What is unique about the locus coeruleus is that it activates almost all higher-order brain centers that are involved in complex cognitive tasks," says Dr. Mehler.
Drs. Purpura and Mehler hypothesize that in autism, the LC-NA system is dysregulated by the interplay of environment, genetic, and epigenetic factors (chemical substances both within as well as outside the genome that regulate the expression of genes). They believe that stress plays a central role in dysregulation of the LC-NA system, especially in the latter stages of prenatal development when the fetal brain is particularly vulnerable.
As evidence, the researchers point to a 2008 study, published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, that found a higher incidence of autism among children whose mothers had been exposed to hurricanes and tropical storms during pregnancy. Maternal exposure to severe storms at mid-gestation resulted in the highest prevalence of autism.
Drs. Purpura and Mehler believe that, in autistic children, fever stimulates the LC-NA system, temporarily restoring its normal regulatory function. "This could not happen if autism was caused by a lesion or some structural abnormality of the brain," says Dr. Pur
|Contact: Deirdre Branley|
Albert Einstein College of Medicine