Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by a wide spectrum of deficits in social interaction, communication, and behavior. There is a significant genetic component to ASD, yet no single gene variant accounts for > 1% of incidence. Posttranscriptional mechanisms such as microRNAs (miRNAs) regulate gene expression without altering the genetic code. They are abundant in the developing brain and are dysregulated in children with ASD. Patterns of miRNA expression are altered in the brain, blood, saliva, and olfactory precursor cells of ASD subjects. The ability of miRNAs to regulate broad molecular pathways in response to environmental stimuli makes them an intriguing player in ASD, a disorder characterized by genetic predisposition with ill-defined environmental triggers. In addition, the availability and extracellular stability of miRNAs make them an ideal candidate for biomarker discovery. Here, we discuss 27 miRNAs with overlap across ASD studies, including 3 miRNAs identified in 3 or more studies (miR-23a, miR-146a, and miR-106b). Together, these 27 miRNAs have 1245 high-confidence mRNA targets, a significant number of which are expressed in the brain. Furthermore, these mRNA targets demonstrate over-representation of autism-related genes with enrichment of neurotrophic signaling molecules. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a molecule involved in hippocampal neurogenesis and altered in ASD, is targeted by 6 of the 27 miRNAs of interest. This neurotrophic pathway represents one intriguing mechanism by which perturbations in miRNA signaling might influence central nervous system development in children with ASD.
Hicks, S. D., & Middleton, F. A. (2016). A comparative review of microRNA expression patterns in autism spectrum disorder. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 7(NOV). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2016.00176