Bigger brains by age 2 in autism

UNC-CHAPEL HILL (US) — Increased brain growth seen in children with autism occurs before the second birthday, new research shows.

The finding is a follow-up to a 2005 study that showed 2-year-old children with autism have brains up to 10 percent larger than children of the same age without autism.

In the latest study, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that children who had enlarged brains at age 2 continued to have enlarged brains at ages 4 and 5, but the amount of the enlargement was to the same degree found at age 2. This increased brain growth did not continue beyond 2 years of age and the changes detected at age 2 were due to overgrowth prior to that time point.

They also found that the cortical enlargement was associated with increased folding on the surface of the brain (or increased surface area) and not an increase in the thickness of the outer layer of the brain (or gray matter). Findings are reported in the Archives of General Psychiatry.

“Brain enlargement resulting from increased folding on the surface of the brain is most likely genetic in origin and a result of an increase in the proliferation of neurons in the developing brain,” says the study’s lead author, Heather Cody Hazlett, an assistant professor of psychiatry.

In both the 2005 study and the new study, Hazlett and colleagues analyzed magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of the children’s brains using computer software developed for that purpose by Martin Styner, an assistant professor of computer science and psychiatry at UNC, and Guido Gerig, formerly at UNC and now at the University of Utah.

“From earlier work by our group on head circumference or head size in children with autism, we think that brain overgrowth in many children with autism may actually be happening around the first birthday. Together these findings suggest that we should be searching for genes that may underlie the over-proliferation of neurons in this early post-natal period,” says Joseph Piven, senior author of the new study and director of the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities.

UNC is currently leading two separate studies aimed at that goal.

“It was important to continue to follow these children to track their brain development to see if the brain and behavioral differences we observed were maintained as the children matured,” says Hazlett, who leads one of the studies funded by Autism Speaks.

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