Scientists at two prominent West coast research centers have found clear evidence that autism begins during pregnancy and their findings are giving new hope to families with autistic children.
Discoveries at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine and the Allen Institute for Brain Science found patches of the brain’s cortex that had disrupted development in children with autism, rather than the disruption being spread throughout the cortex. This supports the idea that children with autism can sometimes ‘rewire’ the connections in their brain to overcome earlier defects.
Researchers at the Autism Center of Excellence at UC San Diego and the Allen Institute in Seattle analyzed 25 genes in post-mortem brain tissue of children with and without autism, including genes that were biomarkers for brain cell types in different layers of the cortex implicated in autism.
During development, a baby creates a cortex that has 6 layers. Researchers found that development was disrupted in the cortex in the majority of the children with autism. They created a 3-dimensional model that shows the patches of the cortex that had failed to develop the normal cell-layering pattern.
The brain regions most commonly affected by the missing layers were the frontal and temporal cortex, which points to why certain functions were impacted in children with the disorder. The frontal cortex is associated with higher-order brain function, such as complex communication and understanding social cues. The temporal cortex controls language.
Findings that the brain defects occur in patches rather than across the entire cortex gives hope to understanding the nature of autism. Researching autism is unusually challenging to study as it requires analyzing adult brains and then making deductions back toward childhood.
These findings give hope to the millions of children in the United States – 1 out of 68 – who are dealing with the challenges of autism.
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