Weighing In on the Autistic BrainIN NEW DEVELOPMENTS IN MEDICINE
A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that children who have autism tend to have heavier brains and more brain cells than other children. This discovery could help researchers learn more about autism spectrum disorders and whether development that occurs before birth can cause autism.
The study, partially funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Autism Speaks, focused specifically on the prefrontal cortex—the area of the brain related to communication, social behavior and mood—rather than head circumference or early brain overgrowth, which have been examined in earlier studies. Children with autism have shown lack of development and challenges within the prefrontal cortex’s functions in language and social characteristics. Thomas R. Insel, MD, Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, a division of NIH, references these findings as the basis that led researchers to focus on what he calls the “critical area of the brain in autism.”
During the study, Eric Courchesne, PhD, and his colleagues at the University of San Diego School of Medicine Autism Center of Excellence, counted brain cells in the postmortem prefrontal cortex of seven autistic boys and six boys with normal development who ranged in age from 2 to 16. Using a specialized computer tissue analysis system developed by co-investigator of the study and NIH grant recipient Peter Mounton, PhD, of the University of South Florida, the tissue was examined, weighed and counted. The results revealed that the boys with autism had 67 percent more neurons in the prefrontal cortex and their brains weighed more than other children in their age groups.
Because these neurons are formed in the womb, the results of the study suggest the development of autism is caused during pregnancy or, more specifically, during a phase of cell development called apoptosis, which happens during the third trimester. Researchers hope to learn more about this subject in the future as more testable samples become available.
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Sources: nih.gov, ninds.nih.gov, and ncbi.nlm.nih.gov