Department of Pediatrics Division of Genetics and Metabolism

How do antioxidants relate to the problem of autism?

In general, organic molecules are metabolized through the process of oxidation whereby electrons are removed from certain proteins, sugars and fats in the process of destroying and/or making new chemical bonds. Some of these oxidation reactions can produce molecules that are toxic to the body but we have a number of safety net systems that deal with this problem. The most well studied is probably the glutathione system. Basically, glutathione is able to donate electrons (and hydrogen) to certain toxic compounds and this process leads to their neutralization. Glutathione must then get electrons back to it by a recycling system so that it can continue to serve as a donor of electrons. Glutathione is termed an antioxidant because of its ability to donate electrons. Actually, when glutathione donates its electrons it is involved in a reduction reaction so this terminology can be confusing at times. The structure of glutathione is noted below.

Simplistically, the antioxidant autism theory purports that the brain is under increased "oxidative stress" and the use of antioxidants can help detoxify certain damaging molecules. It is difficult to actually measure the process of oxidative stress. Some investigators have measured the ratio of glutathione (GSH) to its oxidized counterpart (GSSG). The oxidative stress theory of autism is intriguing but currently unproven.

Glutathion oxidation and reduction