Evidence of oxidative damage and inﬂammation
associated with low glutathione redox status in the
S Rose, S Melnyk, O Pavliv, S Bai, TG Nick, RE Frye and SJ James
Despite increasing evidence of oxidative stress in the pathophysiology of autism, most studies have not evaluated
biomarkers within speciﬁc brain regions, and the functional consequences of oxidative stress remain relatively understudied.
We examined frozen samples from the cerebellum and temporal cortex (Brodmann area 22 (BA22)) from individuals with
autism and unaffected controls (n¼15 and n¼12 per group, respectively). Biomarkers of oxidative stress, including
reduced glutathione (GSH), oxidized glutathione (GSSG) and glutathione redox/antioxidant capacity (GSH/GSSG), were
measured. Biomarkers of oxidative protein damage (3-nitrotyrosine; 3-NT) and oxidative DNA damage (8-oxo-deoxyguanosine;
8-oxo-dG) were also assessed. Functional indicators of oxidative stress included relative levels of 3-chlorotyrosine (3-CT),
an established biomarker of a chronic inﬂammatory response, and aconitase activity, a biomarker of mitochondrial superoxide
production. Consistent with previous studies on plasma and immune cells, GSH and GSH/GSSG were signiﬁcantly decreased
in both autism cerebellum (Po0.01) and BA22 (Po0.01). There was a signiﬁcant increase in 3-NT in the autism cerebellum
and BA22 (Po0.01). Similarly, 8-oxo-dG was signiﬁcantly increased in autism cerebellum and BA22 (Po0.01 and
P¼0.01, respectively), and was inversely correlated with GSH/GSSG in the cerebellum (Po0.01). There was a signiﬁcant
increase in 3-CT levels in both brain regions (Po0.01), whereas aconitase activity was signiﬁcantly decreased in autism
cerebellum (Po0.01), and was negatively correlated with GSH/GSSG (P¼0.01). Together, these results indicate that decreased
GSH/GSSG redox/antioxidant capacity and increased oxidative stress in the autism brain may have functional consequence in
terms of a chronic inﬂammatory response, increased mitochondrial superoxide production, and oxidative protein and DNA
Translational Psychiatry (2012) 2, e134; doi:10.1038/tp.2012.61; published online 10 July 2012
Autism is a complex, behaviorally deﬁned neurodevelopmen-
tal disorder characterized by signiﬁcant impairments in social
interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication, and by
restrictive, repetitive and stereotypic patterns of behavior. The
Centers for Disease Control estimates that the current
prevalence of autism spectrum disorders in the United States
is 1 in 110 children.
A number of studies have shown
abnormalities in the autism brain, including the prefrontal
cortex, temporal lobe, amygdala and cerebellum, as well as
differences in total brain volume and growth trajectories.
However, despite numerous structural and functional neuro-
imaging studies, as well as post-mortem investigations, the
underlying neurobiological basis of autism continues to
Abnormalities in the cerebellum are among the most
reproducibly reported alterations in the autism brain.
Neuroimaging studies have reported reduced vermis
volume as well as total cerebellar volume, whereas post-
mortem analyses have revealed a signiﬁcant reduction in
the number of Purkinje cells in individuals with autism.
Evidence of neuroimmune involvement in the cerebellum
includes the presence of activated neuroglia and elevated
cytokine levels, as well as autoantibodies to cerebellar
Abnormalities in the superior temporal gyrus (STG) are
thought to be relevant in autism because of its important role in
processing sounds and speech development.
contains Brodmann area 22 (BA22), which in the left hemi-
sphere corresponds to Wernicke’s area, a region involved in
speech processing. Neuroimaging analyses have revealed
increased right STG volume in subjects with autism, consistent
with a recent ﬁnding of a more rightward asymmetry of the
STG in individuals with autism.
A reduction in neuronal cell
density and increased glial cell density was reported in a
microscopic analysis of BA22 in individuals with autism.
Neuroimmune activation in the autism STG has been reported
in a single study, ﬁnding increased transcript levels of multiple
Biomarkers of oxidative stress have been reported in many
neurological and psychiatric disorders, including Alzheimer’s
Received 19 March 2012; revised 9 May 2012; accepted 31 May 2012
Department of Pediatrics, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Arkansas Children’s Hospital Research Institute, Little Rock, AR, USA
Correspondence: Dr S Rose, Department of Pediatrics, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Arkansas Children’s Hospital Research Institute, 13 Children’s Way,
Slot 512-41B, Little Rock, AR 72202, USA.
Keywords: aconitase; mitochondria; neuroinﬂammation; oxidative stress; 3-chlorotyrosine; 3-nitrotyrosine
Citation: Transl Psychiatry (2012) 2, e134, doi:10.1038/tp.2012.61
2012 Macmillan Publishers Limited All rights reserved 2158-3188/12
and may reﬂect a common
underlying pathophysiological mechanism. Numerous indica-
tors of oxidative stress have been documented previously in
the blood from children with autism, including decreased
antioxidant enzyme activities, elevated lipid peroxidation and
accumulation of advanced glycation end products.
three independent case/control cohorts, children with autism
were shown to exhibit abnormal plasma levels of metabolites in
the pathway of glutathione redox metabolism.
studies, the mean concentration of reduced glutathione (GSH),
the primary intracellular antioxidant and redox buffer, was
found to be signiﬁcantly decreased, whereas oxidized glu-
tathione disulﬁde (GSSG) was signiﬁcantly increased, result-
ing in a decrease in the glutathione redox ratio (GSH/GSSG) in
both plasma and primary immune cells from children with
Taken together, accumulating evidence suggests
that children with autism have a more oxidized extracellular
(plasma) and intracellular immune cell microenvironment than
age-matched unaffected control children.
Oxidative stress and damage occurs when antioxidant
defense mechanisms fail to effectively counter endogenous or
exogenous sources of reactive oxygen species. Glutathione is
the primary antioxidant responsible for maintaining the
reducing intracellular microenvironment that is essential for
normal cellular function and viability. GSH/GSSG is a reliable
indicator of cellular redox status, and a chronic reduction in
GSH/GSSG reﬂects a reduced antioxidant capacity and
increased vulnerability to oxidative damage.
increase in oxidative protein and DNA damage was asso-
ciated with the decrease in intracellular and plasma GSH/
GSSG in children with autism, suggesting that the reduced
antioxidant defense capacity in these children may have
functional consequence in terms of overt oxidative damage.
Although there is growing evidence that biomarkers of
increased oxidative stress are present in the blood of children
with autism, the presence of oxidative stress and glutathione
deﬁcit in the autism brain has remained relatively
understudied. In the cerebellum of children with autism,
Sajdel-Sulkowska et al.
found signiﬁcantly increased 3-
nitrotyrosine (3-NT), a marker of oxidative protein damage,
while noting a trend of increased 8-oxo-deoxyguanosine (8-
oxo-dG), a marker of oxidative DNA damage. Another group
reported a signiﬁcant increase in lipid hydroperoxides in the
cerebellum and temporal cortex in autism cases compared
In addition, a greater number of cells contain-
ing lipofuscin, a matrix of lysosomal degradation products and
a marker for oxidative stress, was found in BA22 in autism
compared with control samples.
Whether the pro-oxidant
glutathione redox imbalance previously observed in plasma
and immune cells from children with autism is also present in
the autism brain has not been investigated.
We hypothesized that low glutathione redox status would
be associated with elevated markers of oxidative protein and
DNA damage, inﬂammation and mitochondrial superoxide
production in two regions that have been reported to be
abnormal in autism, cerebellum and BA22. To this end, we
measured two stable post-translational modiﬁcations of
protein tyrosine residues, 3-NT and 3-chlorotyrosine (3-CT).
The 3-NT, a marker of protein oxidative damage, is formed
from peroxynitrite, a highly reactive free radical generated
from nitric oxide (NO) and superoxide. The tyrosine derivative,
3-CT, is a stable marker of inﬂammation that is generated
from hypochlorous acid, a potent chlorinating oxidant derived
from myeloperoxidase in activated immune cells during an
In addition, we measured 8-oxo-dG,
a commonly used biomarker for assessing oxidative DNA
damage during inﬂammatory and pro-oxidant exposures.
Finally, to assess a functional indicator of oxidative damage
and mitochondrial reactive oxygen species production, the
activity of aconitase, a redox-sensitive enzyme in the tri-
carboxylic acid cycle, was measured. Aconitase is highly
sensitive to inactivation by superoxide because of its labile
iron atom and its proximity to the superoxide-generating
electron transport chain.
As 85% of aconitase in the brain is
the mitochondrial isozyme, a decrease in brain aconitase
activity is considered a sensitive indicator of excess mito-
chondrial superoxide production.
Taken together, the ﬁndings of this study support our
hypothesis and a role for glutathione redox imbalance and
oxidative stress in the neuropathology of autism. Further, this
study provides new evidence that mitochondrial superoxide
production may be elevated in certain brain regions and that a
neuroinﬂammatory process may promote oxidative stress and
damage in affected cells.
Materials and methods
Post-mortem brain samples. Frozen post-mortem tissues
were obtained from the NICHD Brain and Tissue Bank for
Developmental Disorders at the University of Maryland,
Baltimore, MD, USA, and from the Autism Tissue Program at
the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center, Belmont, MA,
USA. A total of 15 autism and 15 control tissues from
cerebellar cortex, and 12 autism and 12 control tissues from
BA22 were evaluated. Diagnosis of autism was conﬁrmed by
the Autism Tissue Program, using the Autistic Diagnostic
Interview Revised. Autism and control groups were perfectly
matched for gender, and were matched as closely as
possible for post-mortem interval, age, race and cause of
death. The phenotypic description of the autism case and
control tissues from the cerebellum and BA22 are presented
in Supplementary Tables 1 and 2, respectively. Although
behavioral scores from the Autistic Diagnostic Interview
Revised were available on a few samples through the Autism
Tissue Program database, there were insufﬁcient numbers to
perform valid correlations between biomarkers and behavior.
Aconitase activity. To evaluate a functional consequence
of oxidative stress, the activity of the redox-sensitive enzyme,
aconitase, was measured using the Aconitase Assay Kit
(Cayman Chemical, Ann Arbor, MI, USA) following the
manufacturer’s instructions. The assay is based on the
conversion of citrate to isocitrate, to a-ketoglutarate, which
results in the production of NADPH. The assay measures the
increase in absorbance monitored at 340 nm associated with
the formation of NADPH, which is proportional to the
aconitase activity. Approximately 100 mg of frozen tissue
was minced in 500 ml ice-cold homogenization buffer and
homogenized in a Dounce homogenizer. Homogenates were
Oxidative stress and inﬂammation in the autism brain
S Rose et al
centrifuged at 800 gfor 10min at 4 1C, and the supernatant
was sonicated on ice for 20 s before protein quantiﬁcation
(BCA protein assay, Pierce, Rockford, IL, USA). Samples
were diluted to 0.5 mg ml
in assay buffer immediately
before the assay.
High-performance liquid chromatography quantiﬁcation
of GSH/GSSG, 3-NT and 3-CT. To evaluate biomarkers of
oxidative stress and damage by high-performance liquid chro-
matography (HPLC), approximately 200 mg of tissue was
minced and homogenized in 500 ml of ice-cold phosphate-
buffered saline. To precipitate proteins, 150ml of 10% meta-
phosphoric acid was added to 100 ml of tissue homogenate
and incubated for 30 min on ice. The samples were then
centrifuged at 18 000 gat 4 1C for 15 min, and 20mlofthe
resulting supernatants was injected into the HPLC column for
metabolite quantiﬁcation, while the pellet was used for protein
analysis using the BCA protein assay. The methodological
details for HPLC elution and electrochemical detection of free
unbound GSH, GSSG, 3-NT and 3-CT have been described
The results are expressed as per mg protein.
HPLC/mass spectrometry quantiﬁcation of 8-oxo-
dG. DNA was extracted from brain tissues using standard
phenol chloroform methodology for which the methodological
details have been published previously.
Brieﬂy, to B1mg
DNA, RNase A (Sigma, St Louis, MO, USA) was added to a
ﬁnal concentration of 0.02 mg ml
and incubated at 37 1Cfor
15 min. The puriﬁed DNA was digested into component
nucleotides using nuclease P
, snake venom phospho-
diesterase and alkaline phosphatase as previously described
Quantiﬁcation of 8-oxo-dG in DNA was performed
using mass spectrometry/liquid chromatography on a LCQ
Advantage MAX system (Thermo Electron Corporation,
Waltham, MA, USA) and expressed as pmol per mg DNA.
Statistical analyses. Within each region, biomarkers were
evaluated using a multiple linear regression to test the group
difference between cases and controls. Age, sex and post-
mortem interval were included as covariates, and controlled
for in the regression analysis. The means, s.d. and associated
P-values for case and control samples are reported.
Spearman’s correlation coefﬁcients were computed to
determine inter-metabolite correlations. All data were
analyzed using SAS 9.2 (SAS Institute, Cary, NC, USA). All
statistical tests used a signiﬁcance level of 0.05.
Demographics of tissue donors. There were no
differences in mean age, gender or post-mortem interval
between the autism and control groups for either cerebellum
or BA22. Race and cause of death were matched as closely
as possible between available case and control samples;
however, in a few subjects, the race and cause of death were
unknown (Supplementary Tables 1 and 2).
GSH, GSSG, 3-NT, 3-CT and 8-oxo-dG. Figure 1 presents
the relative concentrations of GSH, GSSG, 3-NT, 3-CT and
8-oxo-dG in the autism and control cerebellum, and the BA22
samples. All measured metabolites were signiﬁcantly altered
in autism compared with matched controls in both brain
regions analyzed. GSH was decreased in autism cerebellum
by 43% compared with control cerebellum (Po0.01).
Similarly, in BA22, GSH was 32% decreased in autism
cases compared with controls (Po0.01). The concentration
of GSSG was 18% higher (P¼0.02) and the resulting GSH/
GSSG redox ratio was 52% lower (Po0.01) in the
cerebellum from autism cases compared with controls. In
BA22, the autism samples exhibited 19% higher
concentration of GSSG (Po0.01) and 43% lower GSH/
GSSG (Po0.001) redox ratio compared with controls. The
concentration of 3-NT was elevated by 42 and 72% in autism
cerebellum (Po0.01) and BA22 (Po0.01), respectively,
compared with control samples. The level of 3-CT was
signiﬁcantly increased by 95 and 38% in autism cerebellum
(Po0.01) and BA22 (Po0.01), respectively, compared with
control samples. The mean concentration of 8-oxo-dG was
increased 27% in cerebellum (Po0.01) and 21% in BA22
(P¼0.01) in autism compared with control tissues. Age was
not signiﬁcantly correlated with any of the measured
biomarkers; however, post-mortem interval was negatively
associated with GSSG in the combined case/control cohort
of samples from BA22 (r¼0.57; P¼0.004) and in the
autism BA22 samples (r¼0.63; P¼0.03).
Aconitase activity. Figure 2a presents the aconitase activity
) measured in both cerebellum and BA22
autism and control samples. The mean aconitase activity in
the cerebellum from the autism cases was signiﬁcantly lower
than in the cerebellum tissues from controls (45.3%; Po0.01).
There was a trend of decreased aconitase activity in BA22
from the autism cases compared with controls; however, it
failed to reach statistical signiﬁcance (P¼0.1). A positive
association between aconitase activity and GSH/GSSG was
found in both cerebellum (P¼0.01) and BA22 (P¼0.03) in
our combined case and control cohort (correlation
coefﬁcients ¼0.46 and 0.45, respectively). Figures 2b and c
illustrate this relationship and demonstrate that the autism
cases are clustered in the lower left quadrant of the graphs
with decreased GSH/GSSG and aconitase activity relative to
8-oxo-dG is associated with GSH/GSSG in the
cerebellum. Figure 3 illustrates the signiﬁcant negative
association found between 8-oxo-dG and GSH/GSSG in the
cerebellum in the combined case and control cohort
(correlation coefﬁcient ¼0.78; Po0.0001). Although the
association was not signiﬁcant within the autism cohort, the
clustering of the autism cases in the bottom right quadrant with
signiﬁcantly higher 8-oxo-dG levels and lower GSH/GSSG is
In the present investigation, we demonstrate for the ﬁrst time
that the decreased glutathione-mediated redox/antioxidant
capacity previously observed in plasma and immune cells
from children with autism is also signiﬁcantly decreased in two
Oxidative stress and inﬂammation in the autism brain
S Rose et al
brain regions previously shown to be affected in autism, the
cerebellum and BA22. Our ﬁndings also conﬁrm previous
preliminary reports that markers of oxidative damage (3-NT and
8-oxo-dG) are increased in these two brain regions in individuals
We further extend these ﬁndings by examining
a larger sample of carefully selected tissues for multiple markers
of oxidative protein/DNA damage (3-NT, 8-oxo-dG), as well as
functional biomarkers of inﬂammation (3-CT) and mitochondrial
superoxide production (aconitase activity).
A relative decrease in aconitase activity in the autism
cerebellum is an important new ﬁnding, suggesting a functional
consequence of oxidative stress in this region. In brain tissue,
aconitase is located primarily in the mitochondria where it
functions as an enzyme in the tricarboxylic acid cycle.
Mitochondrial aconitase is highly sensitive to oxidative
inactivation by superoxide radicals that are produced in close
proximity by the electron transport chain (ETC). Thus, in
addition to being a marker of oxidative protein damage, a
decrease in aconitase activity is considered to be a sensitive
indicator of elevated mitochondrial superoxide production.
The labile iron–sulfur (Fe-S) cluster present in the active
site of aconitase is a major target of excessive mitochondrial
superoxide. In the presence of sufﬁcient reducing agents,
such as GSH or NADPH, aconitase can be restored to its
however, in the autism cerebellum, the
observed decrease in GSH concentration relative to controls
indicates a chronic deﬁcit of reducing equivalents in this
region. As depicted in Figure 4, unscavenged superoxide
inactivates aconitase by displacing Fe
from the Fe-S
cluster, which then promotes the formation of the damaging
hydroxyl radical via reaction with H
and Fenton chemistry.
A fragile redox state within the mitochondria of individuals with
autism has been previously reported,
and may reﬂect a self-
amplifying cycle of antioxidant depletion and aconitase
inactivation. Several enzymes involved in ATP production
contain Fe-S clusters in the active site and are subject to
similar inactivation by superoxide, including oxoglutarate
dehydrogenase of the tricarboxylic acid cycle, as well as
ETC complexes I–III.
A deﬁcit in the tricarboxylic acid cycle
and ETC function under conditions of excessive superoxide
production in the brain would be expected to result in a
reduced ability to maintain adequate levels of ATP required for
normal neuronal and synaptic functioning.
Aconitase inactivation and oxidative stress have been
noted in other neuropsychiatric and neurodegenerative
disorders with known mitochondrial involvement, including
One study of mitochondrial dysfunction in the
autism brain found decreased protein levels of multiple ETC
complexes in the cerebellum, frontal and temporal cortex.
There is mounting evidence that mitochondrial dysfunction
may be present in a signiﬁcant subset of children with autism
GSH (nmol/mg protein)
GSSG nmol/mg protein
3-NT pmol/mg protein
3-CT pmol/mg protein
100 * *
8-oxo-dG pmol/mg DNA
100 * **
Figure 1 Glutathione redox imbalance and increased biomarkers of oxidative stress in autism cerebellum (CB) and Brodmann area 22 (BA22). High-performance liquid
chromatography (HPLC) and HPLC/mass spectrometry were used to measure biomarkers in autism and control tissue samples from CB and BA22(n¼15 and 12 cases and
controls/group, respectively), and normalized for protein content. The concentrations of reduced glutathione (GSH; a), oxidized glutathione (GSSG; b), glutathione redox/
antioxidant capacity (GSH/GSSG; c), 3-nitrotyrosine (3-NT; d), 3-chlorotyrosine (3-CT; e), 8-oxo-deoxyguanosine (8-oxo-dG; f) are presented as mean±s.d. *Po0.01;
Oxidative stress and inﬂammation in the autism brain
S Rose et al
and contribute to the multisystem abnormalities seen in some
The signiﬁcant decrease in aconitase
activity warrants continued investigation into interactions
between mitochondrial dysfunction, superoxide production
and altered ETC complex activity in autism.
The oxidized protein tyrosine derivative, 3-NT, provides a
stable biochemical footprint of oxidative protein damage and
has been found to be elevated in plasma of children with
autism in a previous study.
Elevated levels of 3-NT have
been described in a number of diseases with an oxidative
stress pathology, including alcoholism, smoking, diabetes,
atherosclerosis and cystic ﬁbrosis.
The tyrosine derivative,
3-NT, is formed primarily from peroxynitrite, a damaging free
radical generated from superoxide and NO. Thus, the signi-
ﬁcant increase in levels of 3-NT observed in the autism cere-
bellum and BA22 was not unexpected and is consistent with
elevated superoxide production and aconitase inactivation.
In addition to being a classic marker of oxidative protein
damage, elevated levels of 3-NT indicates elevated NO
production. Excessive NO competes with the antioxidants,
MnSOD and GSH, for superoxide and promotes the genera-
tion of peroxynitrite.
NO can reversibly inhibit mitochondrial
respiration at complex IV, whereas the more damaging
peroxynitrite can permanently inactivate complexes I, III
In a previous study, we demonstrated the increased
sensitivity of autism lymphoblastoid cells to acute NO-induced
mitochondrial membrane depolarization, and others have
reported elevated plasma and red blood cells levels of nitrites
in children with autism.
Neuroglial cells express iNOS
(inducible NO synthase) and produce high quantities of NO
when activated by cytokines.
Interestingly, the presence of
proinﬂammatory cytokines and activated neuroglia have been
reported in the autism cerebellum among other regions,
suggesting that activated neuroglia produce excess NO and
may contribute to the peroxynitrite formation and increased
3-NT protein damage observed in the present study.
A signiﬁcantly elevated level of 3-CT in the autism
cerebellum and BA22 is a novel ﬁnding indicative of a chronic
neuroinﬂammatory state in these regions. Activated phago-
cytic cells produce hypochlorous acid, the product of
myeloperoxidase (MPO) activity that is stimulated during
Figure 2 Aconitase activity is decreased in autism cerebellum (CB) and associated with glutathione redox/antioxidant capacity (GSH/GSSG) in control and autism CB, and
Brodmann area 22 (BA22). (a) Aconitase activity was measured in frozen post-mortem autism and control tissue samples from CB and BA22 (n¼15 and 12 cases and
controls/group, respectively), and normalized for protein content. Data are presented as mean±s.d. Aconitase activity was signiﬁcantly decreased in autism CB (3.99±2.34)
compared with control CB (7.29±1.85). The difference in aconitase activity between autism BA22 (3.30±1.88) and control BA22 (5.47±3.78) did not reach signiﬁcance.
(b) In the combined case and control cohort of samples from the CB, aconitase activity was signiﬁcantly associated with GSH/GSSG (P¼0.01). (c) Within BA22 in the
combined case and control samples, aconitase activity was similarly signiﬁcantly associated with GSH/GSSG (P¼0.03). Although the signiﬁcance of the correlations does not
hold within the autism samples, the sample-speciﬁc clustering of case values (in open circles) in the bottom left quadrant of each graph is apparent. *Po0.01.
Figure 3 The 8-oxo-deoxyguanosine (8-oxo-dG) is associated with glutathione
redox/antioxidant capacity (GSH/GGSG) in the cerebellum. In the combined
case and control cohort of samples from the cerebellum, 8-oxo-dG was signiﬁ-
cantly associated with GSH/GSSG (Po.0001). Although the signiﬁcance of the
correlations does not hold within the autism samples, the sample-speciﬁc
clustering of case values (in open circles) in the bottom left quadrant of each
graph is apparent.
Oxidative stress and inﬂammation in the autism brain
S Rose et al
immune activation, resulting in the 3-CT derivative.
vated expression of MPO has previously been demonstrated
in chronic neurological disease states, such as Alzheimer’s
and multiple sclerosis.
The observed increase in 3-CT in the autism cerebellum and
BA22 samples is the ﬁrst indication of elevated MPO
expression in the autism brain, and supports previous reports
of microglial activation and inﬂammatory cytokines in autism
The role of inﬂammation and microglial activa-
tion in the neuropathology of autism warrants further
investigation and conﬁrmation.
In addition to markers of protein oxidative damage, 8-oxo-
dG, a marker of DNA oxidative damage, was signiﬁcantly
elevated in both cerebellum and BA22 from the autism cases
relative to controls. The 8-oxo-dG adduct in the mitochondrial
and nuclear DNA is a pre-mutagenic lesion formed primarily
by an attack by the hydroxyl radical (
OH). It has been
associated with oxidative DNA damage in conditions such as
aging, cancer and pro-oxidant environmental exposures.
the cerebellum, 8-oxo-dG was negatively associated with
GSH/GSSG in the combined case and control cohort
(Figure 3); however, this association failed to reach signiﬁ-
cance in the BA22 region. The superoxide-mediated release
associated with mitochondrial aconitase inactivation
has been shown to be a signiﬁcant source of OH radical
formation through Fenton chemistry.
Taken together, these
data suggest the reduced GSH/GSSG antioxidant capacity is
insufﬁcient to counter excessive
OH production, and that
OH can reach the nucleus to create the oxidative
DNA adduct, 8-oxo-dG.
The hypothesized interactions between each of the
measured biomarkers of oxidative stress and damage,
mitochondrial dysfunction and inﬂammation are diagrammed
in Figure 5. Elevated superoxide generated from dysfunc-
tional mitochondria promotes the formation of excessive
, the substrate for MPO-mediated hypochlorous acid
synthesis and the generation of the inﬂammatory biomarker,
3-CT. Elevated superoxide can combine with NO, resulting in
the formation of the peroxynitrite radical and the protein
oxidative damage biomarker, 3-NT. The hydroxyl radical is
generated by both aconitase inactivation and MPO activity,
and promotes the formation of 8-oxo-dG. Chronic elevation of
these free radicals will deplete GSH/GSSG redox/antioxidant
capacity, allowing unopposed free-radical generation and a
self-perpetuating cycle, leading to chronic oxidative stress
and damage. The lack of a correlation between age and the
biomarkers suggests that oxidative stress is a chronic
condition in autism, because the same pattern of elevated
biomarkers is seen over such a wide age range.
In summary, we show for the ﬁrst time that peripheral
markers of oxidative stress and damage previously observed
in plasma and immune cells are similarly elevated in two
affected brain regions in autism, cerebellum and BA22.
Together, these observations suggest that a pro-oxidant
environment and oxidative stress are pervasive and systemic
in individuals with autism. The negative association between
GSH/GSSG, and oxidative protein and DNA damage suggest
that decreased glutathione redox capacity in the autism brain
may have functional consequence in terms of increased
mitochondrial superoxide production and a chronic inﬂamma-
tory state. Nonetheless, because autism is inﬂuenced by
multiple interacting genetic and environmental factors that are
case-speciﬁc and inherent limitations in post-mortem brain,
these observations will require conﬁrmation in subsequent
Figure 4 Mechanism of mitochondrial aconitase inactivation. Mitochondrial
aconitase is a tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle enzyme that catalyzes the conversion
of citrate to isocitrate. It contains an iron-sulfur cluster ([4Fe-4S]) in its active site
that is inactivated by superoxide (O
) produced in close proximity as a byproduct
of the electron transport chain. This results in the release of a Fe
and a molecule
of hydrogen peroxide (H
), which, through the Fenton reaction, can react
to produce a hydroxyl radical (
OH). The glutathione redox capacity (GSH/GSSG)
will decrease as a result of the elevated free-radical production and will allow
more superoxide inactivation of aconitase, creating a self-amplifying cycle if left
Figure 5 Proposed interactions between measured biomarkers and oxidative
stress. Elevated superoxide generated from dysfunctional mitochondria promotes
the formation of excess H
, the substrate for myeloperoxidase (MPO)-mediated
hypochlorous acid (HOCl) synthesis and the generation of the inﬂammatory
biomarker, 3-chlorotyrosine (3-CT). An elevation in nitric oxide (NO) combined with
elevated superoxide levels results in the formation of the peroxynitrite radical and
the protein oxidative damage biomarker, 3-nitrotyrosine (3-NT). The hydroxyl radical
is generated by both aconitase inactivation and MPO, and promotes the formation of
8-oxo-deoxyguanosine (8-oxo-dG). Chronic elevation of these free radicals will
deplete the glutathione redox/antioxidant capacity (GSH/GSSG), allowing
unopposed free-radical generation and a self-perpetuating cycle, leading to chronic
Oxidative stress and inﬂammation in the autism brain
S Rose et al
Conﬂict of interest
The authors declare no conﬂict of interest.
Acknowledgements. We would like to thank the families of individuals
with autism for the thoughtful donation of post-mortem tissues to the Autism Tissue
Program at the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center, Belmont, MA,USA, and the
NICHD Brain and Tissue Bank for Developmental Disorders at the University of
Maryland, Baltimore, MD, USA. This work was supported, in part, by the National
Institute of Child Health and Development (RO1 HD051873 to SJJ) and the Jane
Botsford Johnson Foundation.
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Oxidative stress and inﬂammation in the autism brain
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