Scientists at the University of California, San Diego Autism Center of Excellence studied the brains of 13 boys, seven with autism and six who were developing normally.
They found the autistic children had a whopping 67 percent more brain cells than their average counterparts, as well as having brains that were 17.6 percent heavier than normally developed samples.
Autism affects one in every 150 children in the U.S., and a new study by UC San Diego scientists indicate the roots may be found in prenatal development.
What do these findings tell us? The roots of autism, which affects one in every 150 children in the U.S., may be in having too many neurons, not too little, and that this dangerous overflow occurs, not during toddlerhood or infancy, but while babies are still developing in the prenatal stages.
"Too Much of a Good Thing."
Having so many brain cells sounds like a good thing, until one examines the area where this 67 percent increase occurs. The study focused on the prefrontal cortex, which specializes in social, emotional, communication and language development.
Having too many neurons, or nerve cells, in the prefrontal cortex may be what triggers autistic children's lack of development in just these areas. When the brain has too many neurons, something happens which resembles the tangled pile of wires and extension cords at most people's desks: wiring gets crossed.
"In autism, something is going terribly wrong with mechanisms that control the number of neurons," said lead author Eric Courchesne, Ph.D. If there's too much neural "wiring" in the prefrontal cortex, it might help explain why children with autism exhibit poor social skills and difficulty expressing emotion or communicating.
"This is a good example where you have too much of a good thing, it can be bad for you," Dr. Max Wiznitzer, a neurologist and autism expert at the Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio.
"This is not consistent with the claims that heavy metals [from vaccines for example] cause the death of brain cells," says Wiznitzer. Rather than fewer brain cells causing autism, it would appear that the unexpected increase is to blame.
Small But Significant
This autism study is a very small one, and cannot be taken as proof of a pattern in autistic neural development. The study is significant however, for what it suggests, and what other sources were used for the study.
Courchesne's research suggests that contrary to some popular theories of autism, brain problems occur before autistic children are born, rather than during toddlerhood.
It also suggests that the bulk of autism's effect on the brain is felt early on, in the prenatal and perinatal stages of development, and not caused by environmental factors in infancy.
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