Biological Timing and Neurodevelopmental Disorders: A Role for Circadian Dysfunction in Autism Spectrum Disorders

Ethan Lorsung, Ramanujam Karthikeyan, Ruifeng Cao

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are a spectrum of neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by impaired social interaction and communication, as well as stereotyped and repetitive behaviors. ASDs affect nearly 2% of the United States child population and the worldwide prevalence has dramatically increased in recent years. The etiology is not clear but ASD is thought to be caused by a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic factors. Circadian rhythms are the ∼24 h rhythms driven by the endogenous biological clock, and they are found in a variety of physiological processes. Growing evidence from basic and clinical studies suggest that the dysfunction of the circadian timing system may be associated with ASD and its pathogenesis. Here we review the findings that link circadian dysfunctions to ASD in both experimental and clinical studies. We first introduce the organization of the circadian system and ASD. Next, we review physiological indicators of circadian rhythms that are found disrupted in ASD individuals, including sleep–wake cycles, melatonin, cortisol, and serotonin. Finally, we review evidence in epidemiology, human genetics, and biochemistry that indicates underlying associations between circadian regulation and the pathogenesis of ASD. In conclusion, we propose that understanding the functional importance of the circadian clock in normal and aberrant neurodevelopmental processes may provide a novel perspective to tackle ASD, and clinical treatments for ASD individuals should comprise an integrative approach considering the dynamics of daily rhythms in physical, mental, and social processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number642745
JournalFrontiers in Neuroscience
StatePublished - Mar 12 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by grants from NIH (NS118026), a Faculty Start-Up Grant from the University of Minnesota Medical School, a grant from the Winston and Maxine Wallin Neuroscience Discovery Fund, a grant from the University of Minnesota Foundation, and a grant from Whiteside Institute for Clinical Research to RC.

Publisher Copyright:
© Copyright © 2021 Lorsung, Karthikeyan and Cao.


  • autism spectrum disorders
  • circadian rhythms
  • clock genes
  • cortisol
  • mTOR
  • melatonin
  • serotonin
  • sleep

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article
  • Review


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