Sensory atypicalities in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are thought to arise at least partly from differences in γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptor function. However, the evidence to date has been indirect, arising from correlational studies in patients and preclinical models. Here, we evaluated the role of GABA receptor directly, in 44 adults (n = 19 ASD). Baseline concentration of occipital lobe GABA+ (GABA plus coedited macromolecules) was measured using proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy (1H-MRS). Steady-state visual evoked potential (SSVEP) elicited by a passive visual surround suppression paradigm was compared after double-blind randomized oral administration of placebo or 15 to 30 mg of arbaclofen (STX209), a GABA type B (GABAB) receptor agonist. In the placebo condition, the neurotypical SSVEP response was affected by both the foreground stimuli contrast and background interference (suppression). In ASD, however, all stimuli conditions had equal salience and background suppression of the foreground response was weaker. In the placebo condition, although there was no difference in GABA+ between groups, GABA+ concentration positively correlated with response to maximum foreground contrast during maximum background interference in neurotypicals, but not ASD. In neurotypicals, sensitivity to visual stimuli was disrupted by 30 mg of arbaclofen, whereas in ASD, it was made more “typical” and visual processing differences were abolished. Hence, differences in GABAergic function are fundamental to autistic (visual) sensory neurobiology and are modulated by GABAB activity.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbereabg7859
Pages (from-to)eabg7859
JournalScience Translational Medicine
Issue number626
Publication statusPublished - 5 Jan 2022


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