Alterations in tryptophan and serotonin have been implicated in various mental disorders; but studies are limited on child neurodevelopmental disabilities such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
This prospective cohort study examined the associations between levels of tryptophan and select metabolites (5-methoxytryptophol (5-MTX), 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), serotonin, N-acetyltrytophan) in cord plasma (collected at birth) and physician-diagnosed ASD, ADHD and other developmental disabilities (DD) in childhood.
The study sample (n = 996) derived from the Boston Birth Cohort, which included 326 neurotypical children, 87 ASD, 269 ADHD, and 314 other DD children (mutually exclusive). These participants were enrolled at birth and followed-up prospectively (from October 1, 1998 to June 30, 2018) at the Boston Medical Center.
Higher levels of cord 5-MTX was associated with a lower risk of ASD (aOR: 0.56, 95% CI: 0.41, 0.77) and ADHD (aOR: 0.79, 95% CI: 0.65, 0.96) per Z-score increase, after adjusting for potential confounders. Similarly, children with cord 5-MTX ≥ 25th percentile (vs. <25th percentile) had a reduction in ASD (aOR: 0.27, 95% CI: 0.14, 0.49) and ADHD risks (aOR: 0.45, 95% CI: 0.29, 0.70). In contrast, higher levels of cord tryptophan, 5-HTP and N-acetyltryptophan were associated with higher risk of ADHD, with aOR: 1.25, 95% CI: 1.03, 1.51; aOR: 1.32, 95% CI: 1.08, 1.61; and aOR: 1.27, 95% CI: 1.05, 1.53, respectively, but not with ASD and other DD. Cord serotonin was not associated with ASD, ADHD, and other DD.
Most findings remained statistically significant in the sensitivity and subgroup analyses.