Molecular Biomarkers Predictive of Sertraline Treatment Response in Young Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder

Reem Rafik Alolaby, Poonnada Jiraanont, Blythe Durbin-Johnson, Mittal Jasoliya, Hiu Tung Tang, Randi Hagerman, Flora Tassone

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Sertraline is one among several selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) that exhibited improvement of language development in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD); however, the molecular mechanism has not been elucidated. A double blind, randomized, 6-month, placebo-controlled, clinical trial of low-dose sertraline in children ages (3–6 years) with ASD was conducted at the UC Davis MIND Institute. It aimed at evaluating the efficacy and benefit with respect to early expressive language development and global clinical improvement. This study aimed to identify molecular biomarkers that might be key players in the serotonin pathway and might be predictive of a clinical response to sertraline. Fifty eight subjects with the diagnosis of ASD were randomized to sertraline or placebo. Eight subjects from the sertraline arm and five from the placebo arm discontinued from the study. Furthermore, four subjects did not have a successful blood draw. Hence, genotypes for 41 subjects (20 on placebo and 21 on sertraline) were determined for several genes involved in the serotonin pathway including the serotonin transporter-linked polymorphic region (5-HTTLPR), the tryptophan hydroxylase 2 (TPH2), and the Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). In addition, plasma levels of BDNF, Matrix metallopeptidase 9 (MMP-9) and a selected panel of cytokines were determined at baseline and post-treatment. Intent-to-treat analysis revealed several primary significant correlations between molecular changes and the Mullen Scales of Early Learning (MSEL) and Clinical Global Impression Scale – Improvement (CGI-I) of treatment and control groups but they were not significant after adjustment for multiple testing. Thus, sertraline showed no benefit for treatment of young children with ASD in language development or changes in molecular markers in this study. These results indicate that sertraline may not be beneficial for the treatment of children with ASD; however, further investigation of larger groups as well as longer term follow-up studies are warranted.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number308
JournalFrontiers in Genetics
StatePublished - Apr 15 2020


  • Autism Spectrum Disorders
  • molecular biomarkers
  • selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor
  • serotonin
  • sertraline

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Molecular Medicine
  • Genetics
  • Genetics(clinical)


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