Front Psychiatry. 2023 Feb 22;14:1085445. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2023.1085445. eCollection 2023.
Over the past decade, precision medicine has become one of the most influential approaches in biomedical research to improve early detection, diagnosis, and prognosis of clinical conditions and develop mechanism-based therapies tailored to individual characteristics using biomarkers. This perspective article first reviews the origins and concept of precision medicine approaches to autism and summarises recent findings from the first “generation” of biomarker studies. Multi-disciplinary research initiatives created substantially larger, comprehensively characterised cohorts, shifted the focus from group-comparisons to individual variability and subgroups, increased methodological rigour and advanced analytic innovations. However, although several candidate markers with probabilistic value have been identified, separate efforts to divide autism by molecular, brain structural/functional or cognitive markers have not identified a validated diagnostic subgroup. Conversely, studies of specific monogenic subgroups revealed substantial variability in biology and behaviour. The second part discusses both conceptual and methodological factors in these findings. It is argued that the predominant reductionist approach, which seeks to parse complex issues into simpler, more tractable units, let us to neglect the interactions between brain and body, and divorce individuals from their social environment. The third part draws on insights from systems biology, developmental psychology and neurodiversity approaches to outline an integrative approach that considers the dynamic interaction between biological (brain, body) and social mechanisms (stress, stigma) to understanding the origins of autistic features in particular conditions and contexts. This requires 1) closer collaboration with autistic people to increase face validity of concepts and methodologies; (2) development of measures/technologies that enable repeat assessment of social and biological factors in different (naturalistic) conditions and contexts, (3) new analytic methods to study (simulate) these interactions (including emergent properties), and (4) cross-condition designs to understand which mechanisms are transdiagnostic or specific for particular autistic sub-populations. Tailored support may entail both creating more favourable conditions in the social environment and interventions for some autistic people to increase well-being.