Saliva MicroRNA Differentiates Children With Autism From Peers With Typical and Atypical Development

Steven D. Hicks, Randall L. Carpenter, Kayla E. Wagner, Rachel Pauley, Mark Barros, Cheryl Tierney-Aves, Sarah Barns, Cindy Dowd Greene, Frank A. Middleton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

50 Scopus citations


Objective: Clinical diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) relies on time-consuming subjective assessments. The primary purpose of this study was to investigate the utility of salivary microRNAs for differentiating children with ASD from peers with typical development (TD) and non-autism developmental delay (DD). The secondary purpose was to explore microRNA patterns among ASD phenotypes. Method: This multicenter, prospective, case-control study enrolled 443 children (2–6 years old). ASD diagnoses were based on DSM-5 criteria. Children with ASD or DD were assessed with the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule II and Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales II. MicroRNAs were measured with high-throughput sequencing. Differential expression of microRNAs was compared among the ASD (n = 187), TD (n = 125), and DD (n = 69) groups in the training set (n = 381). Multivariate logistic regression defined a panel of microRNAs that differentiated children with ASD and those without ASD. The algorithm was tested in a prospectively collected naïve set of 62 samples (ASD, n = 37; TD, n = 8; DD, n = 17). Relations between microRNA levels and ASD phenotypes were explored. Result: Fourteen microRNAs displayed differential expression (false discovery rate < 0.05) among ASD, TD, and DD groups. A panel of 4 microRNAs (controlling for medical/demographic covariates) best differentiated children with ASD from children without ASD in training (area under the curve = 0.725) and validation (area under the curve = 0.694) sets. Eight microRNAs were associated (R > 0.25, false discovery rate < 0.05) with social affect, and 10 microRNAs were associated with restricted/repetitive behavior. Conclusion: Salivary microRNAs are “altered” in children with ASD and associated with levels of ASD behaviors. Salivary microRNA collection is noninvasive, identifying ASD-status with moderate accuracy. A multi-“omic” approach using additional RNA families could improve accuracy, leading to clinical application. Clinical trial registration information: A Salivary miRNA Diagnostic Test for Autism;; NCT02832557.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)296-308
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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