Neuropathological mechanisms of seizures in autism spectrum disorder

Richard E. Frye, Manuel F. Casanova, S. Hossein Fatemi, Timothy D. Folsom, Teri J. Reutiman, Gregory L. Brown, Stephen M. Edelson, John C. Slattery, James B. Adams

Research output: Contribution to journalShort surveypeer-review

71 Scopus citations


This manuscript reviews biological abnormalities shared by autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and epilepsy. Two neuropathological findings are shared by ASD and epilepsy: Abnormalities in minicolumn architecture and γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) neurotransmission. The peripheral neuropil, which is the region that contains the inhibition circuits of the minicolumns, has been found to be decreased in the post-mortem ASD brain. ASD and epilepsy are associated with inhibitory GABA neurotransmission abnormalities including reduced GABAA and GABAB subunit expression. These abnormalities can elevate the excitation-to-inhibition balance, resulting in hyperexcitablity of the cortex and, in turn, increase the risk of seizures. Medical abnormalities associated with both epilepsy and ASD are discussed. These include specific genetic syndromes, specific metabolic disorders including disorders of energy metabolism and GABA and glutamate neurotransmission, mineral and vitamin deficiencies, heavy metal exposures and immune dysfunction. Many of these medical abnormalities can result in an elevation of the excitatory-to-inhibitory balance. Fragile X is linked to dysfunction of the mGluR5 receptor and Fragile X, Angelman and Rett syndromes are linked to a reduction in GABAA receptor expression. Defects in energy metabolism can reduce GABA interneuron function. Both pyridoxine dependent seizures and succinic semialdehyde dehydrogenase deficiency cause GABA deficiencies while urea cycle defects and phenylketonuria cause abnormalities in glutamate neurotransmission. Mineral deficiencies can cause glutamate and GABA neurotransmission abnormalities and heavy metals can cause mitochondrial dysfunction which disrupts GABA metabolism. Thus, both ASD and epilepsy are associated with similar abnormalities that may alter the excitatory-to-inhibitory balance of the cortex. These parallels may explain the high prevalence of epilepsy in ASD and the elevated prevalence of ASD features in individuals with epilepsy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number192
JournalFrontiers in Neuroscience
Issue numberMAY
StatePublished - 2016

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 Frye, Casanova, Fatemi, Folsom, Reutiman, Brown, Edelson, Slattery and Adams.


  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Epilepsy
  • Excitatory-to-inhibitory cortical balance
  • Gamma-aminobutyric acid
  • Genetic syndrome
  • Metabolic disorders
  • Seizures


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