Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a highly heterogeneous neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impaired social interactions, restrictive interests, and repetitive stereotypic behaviors. Among the various mechanisms underlying the pathogenesis of ASD, dysfunctions of dopaminergic signaling and mitochondria have been hypothesized to explain the core symptoms of children with ASD. However, only a few studies focusing on the pathological association between dopaminergic neurons (DN) and mitochondria in ASD have been performed using patient-derived stem cells and in vitro differentiated neurons. Stem cells from human exfoliated deciduous teeth (SHED) are neural crest-derived mesenchymal stem cells present in the dental pulp of exfoliated deciduous teeth; these cells can differentiate into dopaminergic neurons (DN) in vitro. This study aimed to investigate the pathological association between development of DN and mitochondria in ASD by using SHED as a disease- or patient-specific cellular model. The SHED obtained from three children with ASD and three typically developing children were differentiated into DN, and the neurobiology of these cells was examined. The DN derived from children with ASD showed impaired neurite outgrowth and branching, associated with decreased mitochondrial membrane potential, ATP production, number of mitochondria within the neurites, amount of mitochondria per cell area and intracellular calcium level. In addition, impaired neurite outgrowth and branching of ASD-derived DN were not improved by brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), suggesting impairment of the BDNF signaling pathway in ASD. These results imply that intracerebral dopamine production may have decreased in these children. The earliest age at which deciduous teeth spontaneously exfoliate in humans, and SHED can be noninvasively collected, is approximately 6 years. Our results suggest that in vitro analysis of SHED-derived DN obtained from children with ASD provides neurobiological information that may be useful in determining treatment strategies in the early stages of ASD.
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