A new study from the Autism Center of Excellence looking into the cellular makeup of children with autism might give insight as to how the disorder forms.

The center’s researchers discovered that the brains of autistic children have more neurons in their prefrontal cortexes than children without autism:

“The autistic children had on average 67 percent more neurons — a type of brain cell and a fundamental building block of the nervous system — than boys without autism of a similar age. Specifically, they found autistic children had 79 percent more neurons in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and 29 percent more in the mesial prefrontal cortex than other kids. … While typically developing kids had about 1.16 billion neurons in the prefrontal cortex, autistic children had about 1.94 billion.”

The prefrontal cortex is a portion of the brain that is linked with functions such as planning and reasoning, cognitive and social behaviors, personality expression and decision making.

For the first time, we have the potential to understand why autism gets started,” said study author Eric Courchesne. “Creating brains cells and the correct number of brain cells is absolutely fundamental to building the brain. If there is an excess number of neurons, there must be a negative consequence to that in the way the brain gets wired or organized.”

Neuron development begins between 10 weeks and 20 weeks of fetal development, and while neuron size grows during childhood, this number stays the same after birth, confirming that the beginnings of autism can be traced in-utero.

“Now let’s find out what genes or what in-utero, non-genetic conditions lead to an excess number of neurons,” Courchesne said.

Source: The Office of Minority Health

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Email her at hrudow@counseling.org.

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