Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a group of heterogeneous neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by impairments activities without efficient pharmacological therapies in social interaction, speech and stereotypic patterns. Clinical studies have shown the efficacy of acupuncture as an alternative therapy for autism. The effectiveness of acupuncture as an alternative treatment for autism has been demonstrated through clinical trials. However, the molecular mechanisms that underlie these effects remain unclear. Due to its profound pro-social, anxiolytic, stress management effects, and its potential use for the treatment of psychiatric disorders associated with altered socioemotional competence, oxytocin (OT) released from the hypothalamus has attracted considerable interest. In the past decade, a number of clinical and animal studies have shown that OT administration effectively reduces core symptoms of ASD, especially social behavior deficits. Recently, the endocannabinoid system has emerged as a promising target for the treatment of autism. OT was found to facilitate the endocannabinoid-mediated social reward processes in the nucleus accumbens of the mouse brain. Furthermore, serotonin and dopamine are involved in the reward response mediated by OT. In view of these findings, we conclude that acupuncture may produce therapeutic effects on autism by triggering the hypothalamic oxytocin system, which in turn activates the release of neurotransmitters such as endocannabinoids, dopamine and serotonin. This would be a valuable guide for further research on the mechanism of treatment of autism with acupuncture.© 2021 Tangfeng Su and Lei Pei, published by De Gruyter.
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