Stress Hormone May Be Linked to Asperger Syndrome

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A new study published in Psychoneuroendocrinology found that the stress hormone cortisol, may be linked to some of the symptoms of Asperger Syndrome.

A new study published in Psychoneuroendocrinology found that the stress hormone cortisol, may be linked to some of the symptoms of Asperger Syndrome (AS).

In a study led by Drs. Mark Brosnan and Julie Turner-Cobb from the Department of Psychology at the University of Bath and Dr. David Jessop from the University of Bristol, the researchers found that children with AS do not experience the surge of cortisol that most people do upon waking up—called the Cortisol Awakening Response (CAR)—which is thought to play a role in making the brain alert and helping individuals become aware of the changes going on around them.

The researchers worked with a total of 38 adolescent males, 20 with AS and 18 age-matched controls between ages 11 and 16. A significant CAR was observed in the control group, but not in the AS males. However, a “normal diurnal decrease in cortisol” was seen in both groups.

The researchers say that the findings may explain why individuals with AS have a more difficult time dealing with changes to their environments and normal routines. In addition, they hope that this evidence, which explains AS as more of a stress response than a behavioral problem, will help teachers and caregivers avoid putting these children in stressful situations.

“Our study found that the children with AS didn’t have this peak although levels of the hormone still decreased during the day as normal,” said Brosnan. “Although these are early days, we think this difference in stress hormone levels could be really significant in explaining why children with AS are less able to react and cope with unexpected change.”

“These findings are important as they give us a clearer understanding about how some of the symptoms we see in AS are linked to how an individual adapts to change at a chemical level,” Cobb added.

The next step, say the researchers, is to find out whether children with other kinds of autism also lack a peak of cortisol after they first wake up.

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