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Imbalance of laminar-specific excitatory and inhibitory circuits of the orbitofrontal cortex in autism

  • Liu, Xuefeng1
  • Bautista, Julied1
  • Liu, Edward1
  • Zikopoulos, Basilis1, 2, 3
  • 1 Boston University, 635 Commonwealth Ave., Room 401D, Boston, MA, 02215, USA , Boston (United States)
  • 2 Boston University School of Medicine, Boston, MA, USA , Boston (United States)
  • 3 Boston University, Boston, MA, USA , Boston (United States)
Published Article
Molecular Autism
BioMed Central
Publication Date
Oct 20, 2020
DOI: 10.1186/s13229-020-00390-x
Springer Nature


BackgroundThe human orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) is involved in assessing the emotional significance of events and stimuli, emotion-based learning, allocation of attentional resources, and social cognition. Little is known about the structure, connectivity and excitatory/inhibitory circuit interactions underlying these diverse functions in human OFC, as well as how the circuit is disrupted in individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).MethodsWe used post-mortem brain tissue from neurotypical adults and individuals with ASD. We examined the morphology and distribution of myelinated axons across cortical layers in OFC, at the single axon level, as a proxy of excitatory pathways. In the same regions, we also examined the laminar distribution of all neurons and neurochemically- and functionally-distinct inhibitory neurons that express the calcium-binding proteins parvalbumin (PV), calbindin (CB), and calretinin (CR).ResultsWe found that the density of myelinated axons increased consistently towards layer 6, while the average axon diameter did not change significantly across layers in both groups. However, both the density and diameter of myelinated axons were significantly lower in the ASD group compared with the Control group. The distribution pattern and density of the three major types of inhibitory neurons was comparable between groups, but there was a significant reduction in the density of excitatory neurons across OFC layers in ASD.LimitationsThis study is limited by the availability of human post-mortem tissue optimally processed for high-resolution microscopy and immunolabeling, especially from individuals with ASD.ConclusionsThe balance between excitation and inhibition in OFC is at the core of its function, assessing and integrating emotional and social cues with internal states and external inputs. Our preliminary results provide evidence for laminar-specific changes in the ratio of excitation/inhibition in OFC of adults with ASD, with an overall weakening and likely disorganization of excitatory signals and a relative strengthening of local inhibition. These changes likely underlie pathology of major OFC communications with limbic or other cortices and the amygdala in individuals with ASD, and may provide the anatomic basis for disrupted transmission of signals for social interactions and emotions in autism.

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