Reduced GABA and altered somatosensory function in children with autism spectrum disorder

Nicolaas A.J. Puts, Ericka L. Wodka, Ashley D. Harris, Deana Crocetti, Mark Tommerdahl, Stewart H. Mostofsky, Richard A.E. Edden

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

72 Scopus citations


Background: Abnormal responses to tactile stimuli are a common feature of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Several lines of evidence suggest that GABAergic function, which has a crucial role in tactile processing, is altered in ASD. In this study, we determine whether in vivo GABA levels are altered in children with ASD, and whether alterations in GABA levels are associated with abnormal tactile function in these children. Methods: GABA-edited magnetic resonance spectroscopy was acquired in 37 children with Autism and 35 typically developing children (TDC) from voxels over primary sensorimotor and occipital cortices. Children performed tactile tasks previously shown to be altered in ASD, linked to inhibitory mechanisms. Detection threshold was measured with- and without the presence of a slowly increasing sub-threshold stimulus. Amplitude discrimination was measured with- and without the presence of an adapting stimulus, and frequency discrimination was measured. Results: Sensorimotor GABA levels were significantly reduced in children with autism compared to healthy controls. Occipital GABA levels were normal. Sensorimotor GABA levels correlated with dynamic detection threshold as well as with the effect of sub-threshold stimulation. Sensorimotor GABA levels also correlated with amplitude discrimination after adaptation (an effect absent in autism) and frequency discrimination in controls, but not in children with autism. Conclusions: GABA levels correlate with behavioral measures of inhibition. Children with autism have reduced GABA, associated with abnormalities in tactile performance. We show here that altered in vivo GABA levels might predict abnormal tactile information processing in ASD and that the GABA system may be a future target for therapies. Autism Res 2016.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)608-619
Number of pages12
JournalAutism Research
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2017


  • GABA
  • MRS
  • autism
  • magnetic resonance spectroscopy
  • somatosensory
  • tactile
  • touch

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Genetics(clinical)


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