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Prenatal abnormalities during brain development may be linked to autism

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A study published Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that developmental abnormalities in the brain occurring prenatally may be linked to a later diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The team of scientists out of the University of California, San Diego looked at samples of brains of 11 children diagnosed with ASD, and 11 without a diagnosis, between two and 15 years of age donated to science postmortem. They analyzed specific molecular markers for neurons and brain regions, as well as gene expression, that have been implicated in the diagnosis of autism. These regions were responsible for such skills as social functioning and communication.

Abnormalities in these regions were found in 10 out of the 11 children with autism and in 1 of 11 undiagnosed children. The researchers couldn't determine whether these abnormalities were due to a deficiency of gene expression in these areas or if they were malfunctioning, but they posited that disruptions in development in these regions typically occur during the second and third trimester of pregnancy.

While this exploratory study was small in scope with relatively few samples analyzed, it does provide evidence for prenatal, biological markers for autism, pointing to the need for more expansive research on the subject.

The CDC recently reported that the rate of autism diagnoses has jumped from one in 150 in the year 2000, and one in 88 in 2008, to one in 68 in 2010. Whether this can be attributed to an actual increase in prevalence, different diagnostic criteria, or a combination of the two, is unclear.

Further research studies have paved the way for earlier diagnosis of ASD, also diminishing the notion of other external factors as a possible cause. While the diagnostic rates may have increased in the past two decades, it's clear that earlier treatment leads to the most optimal outcome for children diagnosed on the autism spectrum.

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