A quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

The Autism Research Review International is quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

Spring, 2020 | Number 2, Volume 34

CSF vasopressin levels may help to predict autism in infants

Researchers at Stanford report that low cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) levels of the hormone vasopressin—which affects social behaviors such as pair-bonding and fathering in male mammals—may be a biomarker for autism spectrum disorders (ASD). 

Previous research by Karen Parker, John Constantino, and colleagues (Including Ozge Oztan, first author of the new study) revealed that CSF levels of vasopressin were significantly lower in children with ASD than in controls, and that individuals with the lowest CSF vasopressin levels had the most severe symptoms of autism. The researchers also found that administering vasopressin to children with autism improved their social ability. 

In the new study, the researchers used samples of cerebrospinal fluid taken from newborn to three-month-old infants with fevers and stored for future research. Among these samples, the researchers identified 11 from infants who later developed ASD and matched them to 22 samples from controls. (Two samples in the ASD group were not large enough to test, leaving a total of 9.) 

The researchers say that CSF vasopressin levels “were significantly lower among ASD cases than controls, and individually predicted case status, with highest precision when cases with comorbid attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder [ADHD] were removed from the analysis.” Individual vasopressin levels correctly predicted which children would develop ASD in seven of the nine autism cases, and the two samples that did not correctly predict autism came from children also diagnosed with ADHD. Levels of a related hormone, oxytocin, did not differ between infants with ASD and controls. 

The researchers say, “These preliminary findings suggest that a biomarker of autism may be present before behavioral symptoms emerge. If replicated, this approach could be useful for assessing autism risk and facilitating early intervention in high-risk individuals.” They caution, however, that their study involved a small number of samples and needs to be replicated in a larger group. They also plan to study children with other disorders to see if their finding is specific to autism. In addition, they want to study whether using a blood biomarker is possible, since obtaining CSF samples is a difficult and highly invasive procedure.


“Neonatal CSF vasopressin concentration predicts later medical record diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder,” Ozge Oztan, Joseph P. Garner, John N. Constantino, and Karen J. Parker, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, April 27, 2020 (online). Address: Karen J. Parker, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, [email protected]


“Potential autism biomarker found in babies,” news release, Stanford University Medical Center, April 27, 2020.