Autism May Begin Well Before Birth

Closeup shot of a pregnant woman holding an ultrasound scan

For years scientists have been trying to understand autism spectrum disorders and the causes behind it. Research published in The New England Journal of Medicine (2014) adds mounting evidence that autism could begin as early as the second trimester of pregnancy.

Researchers from the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle and the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine examined samples of brain tissue from 22 children who died, half of whom had been diagnosed with autism. The scientists found that 10 out of 11 children with autism showed patches of disrupted development in the neocortex, the region of the brain that controls comprehension, reasoning and language.

During the second trimester of pregnancy the cortex normally develops into six distinct layers, each made up of its own specialized brain cells. But in children with autism, the researchers saw patches in which the layers appeared jumbled and disorganized, or where certain cells were missing. Most of these patches were concentrated in areas of the brain that handle functions that are impaired by autism, such as language and understanding social cues. “This builds on prior research, clearly defining autism as a neurobiological disorder that happens very early in life,” says Daniel Amen, MD, a psychiatrist, brain imaging expert and the founder of Amen Clinics.

Pregnant? Here’s What You Can Do

There’s no need for alarm if you’re pregnant. “I think autism is the result of a gene-environmental interaction,” Dr. Amen says. “People cannot do much about the genes they inherit, but there is a new concept called epigenetics that says your behavior turns on or off certain genes that make illnesses more likely in their offspring.” By practicing healthy habits like eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of sleep (6 to 8 hours) and avoiding pesticides and other toxic chemicals, Amen says you may be able to help control certain genes that may predispose your unborn child to autism.  

Future Treatment

Autism has no cure, but some children appear to improve as they get older, and early intervention with behavioral and speech therapies can help. This study could explain why. Because the researchers found the disorganized layers only in patches of the cortex, as opposed to covering the entire brain, they believe that the normal-appearing parts may be able to rewire themselves to take over for the affected patches. Still, much is unknown. “The fact that there are brain abnormalities in this way do not yet give us a clear direction for treatment,” Amen says. The hope is that future studies will point to therapies that can help with that process. 

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