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A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine finds that children with autism have small patches in their cerebral cortex where neuron arrangement has been disrupted. This could be evidence that autism begins prenatally rather than after birth.
The study, lead by Eric Courchesne of the University of California, San Diego, used molecular labeling on postmortem tissue from people with autism who'd died as children.
"If it's real, if it's replicated and it's a consistent finding, it's more evidence that autism starts prenatally and only manifests itself when kids start to have trouble with language or social behavior around age two or three," said Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, one of several agencies that funded the project. "These kinds of changes in cellular architecture would happen during brain development, probably around the first part of the second trimester." (Quoted from Wired.)
The study involved post-mortem brain tissue from 22 children who'd died between the ages of 2 and 15. Half of them had autism, the other half did not. Genetic markers were used to label specific cell types as well as specific layers in the cortex. In all but one of the autistic brains, they found patches of cortex that didn't follow normal rules. Details of the differences varied by the brain, possibly indicating that some forms or severities of the autism spectrum may have different markers, but the abnormalities were otherwise consistent versus the normal brains studied.
Also possibly significant is that the one child without autism who showed abnormalities in the cortex had a history of seizures.
Courchesne concludes that this study is merely a start into a new line of thinking, but that it may hold many answers in medical science's questions about the autism spectrum.
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