Study Suggests Autism Starts Before Birth

Autism has long perplexed medical professionals and parents, partly because it lacks an effective treatment and partly because its causes are uncertain. A study published in the March 27 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine may shed light on the latter; researchers found that the brains of autistic children who died young had patches of disorganization in the cortex, which suggests that autism begins developing in the womb.

To obtain their results, researchers compared the brains of 11 autistic children who died between the ages of 2 and 15 to 11 children who didn't have the condition. Ten of the 11 children with autism had distinct — and similar — patches of neural disorganization, compared with only one of the 11 children without autism. The study's authors say that the type of neural disorganization observed suggests that it occurred during prenatal development. NPR has an explanation of how this disorganization looks in children with autism:

"In the brain tissue from typical children, the cortex had six distinct layers, each made up of a specific type of cell. But in the children with autism, "there are patches in which specific cells in specific layers seem to be missing," [study author Eric] Courchesne says. So instead of distinct layers, there are disorganized collections of brain cells. "These patches of disorganized cortex would have different effects on the brain depending on where they occur and how many there are, Courchesne says. That could help explain why the symptoms of autism vary so much."

While this is a small, exploratory study, it bolsters the case that autism's roots lie in genetics, even though symptoms often don't become observable until a child is a toddler. For a condition with rapidly rising diagnosis rates, understanding its origins can point researchers in the right direction to find treatments and, potentially, effective preventative measures or cures.

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