Thalamic and prefrontal GABA concentrations but not GABA A receptor densities are altered in high-functioning adults with autism spectrum disorder

Fung L.K., Flores R.E., Gu M., Sun K.L., James D., Schuck R.K., Jo B., Park J.H., Lee B.C., Jung J.H., Kim S.E., Saggar M., Sacchet M.D., Warnock G., Khalighi M.M., Spielman D., Chin F.T., Hardan A.Y. 2020. Molecular Psychiatry


The gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) neurotransmission system has been implicated in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Molecular neuroimaging studies incorporating simultaneous acquisitions of GABA concentrations and GABAA receptor densities can identify objective molecular markers in ASD. We measured both total GABAA receptor densities by using [18F]flumazenil positron emission tomography ([18F]FMZ-PET) and GABA concentrations by using proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy (1H-MRS) in 28 adults with ASD and 29 age-matched typically developing (TD) individuals. Focusing on the bilateral thalami and the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) as our regions of interest, we found no differences in GABAA receptor densities between ASD and TD groups. However, 1H-MRS measurements revealed significantly higher GABA/Water (GABA normalized by water signal) in the left DLPFC of individuals with ASD than that of TD controls. Furthermore, a significant gender effect was observed in the thalami, with higher GABA/Water in males than in females. Hypothesizing that thalamic GABA correlates with ASD symptom severity in gender-specific ways, we stratified by diagnosis and investigated the interaction between gender and thalamic GABA/Water in predicting Autism-Spectrum Quotient (AQ) and Ritvo Autism Asperger’s Diagnostic Scale–Revised (RAADS-R) total scores. We found that gender is a significant effect modifier of thalamic GABA/Water’s relationship with AQ and RAADS-R scores for individuals with ASD, but not for TD controls. When we separated the ASD participants by gender, a negative correlation between thalamic GABA/Water and AQ was observed in male ASD participants. Remarkably, in female ASD participants, a positive correlation between thalamic GABA/Water and AQ was found.