Autism starts developing during Pregnancy

Posted on March 27, 2014


The researchers - Eric Courchesne, PhD, professor of neurosciences and director of the Autism Center of Excellence at UC San Diego, Ed S. Lein, PhD, of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, and first author Rich Stoner, PhD, of the UC San Diego Autism Center of Excellence - analyzed 25 genes in post-mortem brain tissue of children with and without autism. These included genes that serve as biomarkers for brain cell types in different layers of the cortex, genes implicated in autism and several control genes.

"Building a baby's brain during pregnancy involves creating a cortex that contains six layers,” Courchesne said. "We discovered focal patches of disrupted development of these cortical layers in the majority of children with autism." Stoner created the first three-dimensional model visualizing brain locations where patches of cortex had failed to develop the normal cell-layering pattern.

"The most surprising finding was the similar early developmental pathology across nearly all of the autistic brains, especially given the diversity of symptoms in patients with autism, as well as the extremely complex genetics behind the disorder," explained Lein.

During early brain development, each cortical layer develops its own specific types of brain cells, each with specific patterns of brain connectivity that perform unique and important roles in processing information. As a brain cell develops into a specific type in a specific layer with specific connections, it acquires a distinct genetic signature or "marker" that can be observed.

The study found that in the brains of children with autism, key genetic markers were absent in brain cells in multiple layers. "This defect," Courchesne said, "indicates that the crucial early developmental step of creating six distinct layers with specific types of brain cells - something that begins in prenatal life - had been disrupted."


Category(s):Autism spectrum disorders

Source material from University of California, San Diego


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