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Disregulation of proopiomelanocortin and contagious maladaptive behavior


Self-injurious behavior (SIB) is an untreatable and often life-threatening problem among individuals with developmental disorders, especially those diagnosed with autism. Functioning, relationships and processing of the proopiomelanocortin (POMC) system are "uncoupled" in subgroups of self-injuring individuals resulting in different ratios of ACTH and opioids in the bloodstream, particularly under conditions of stress. In this study, relations between SIB and POMC were evaluated in a multi-year study of the largest prospective sample studied to date. Observations were collected on palmtop computers for 45 treatment-resistant patients who exhibited chronic SIB. Behavior of each subject was observed in natural settings without disruption or intrusion, for continuous, 2.5-h periods, two times a day (morning and afternoon), 4 days a week for two consecutive weeks, for a total of 40 h/subject. Blood was collected in the morning, late afternoon and immediately after an SIB episode on two separate occasions separated by at least 6 months. Levels of beta-endorphin (beta E) and ACTH were assayed by RIA. We discovered that the SIB was the best predictor of subsequent SIB. Moreover, the majority of subjects exhibited this contagious pattern of SIB. Levels of POMC fragments were reliable over a 6- to 9-month period. Subjects exhibiting POMC disregulation characterized by high morning levels of beta E had the highest transitional probabilities of SIB (i.e. contagious patterns; F=8.17, P<0.01). These findings suggest that subjects with "contagious" SIB may represent a behavioral phenotype associated with disregulated expression of the POMC gene.

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