A new study has examined brain tissue samples that were donated by children who had died to research the origins of autism. The findings revealed clusters of disorganised cells in regions of the brain responsible for social functioning, communication and emotions – all activities that are difficult for those with autism.
These cell abnormalities were found in 10 out of 11 children with autism, but only in one out of 11 of those without autism. Sophisticated testing techniques were able to detect that the clusters most likely formed during the second or third trimester of pregnancy.
The cause of the clusters has not yet been discovered, but lead author Professor Eric Courchesne explains that the findings “call sharply into question other popular notions about autism.”
Professor Courchesne also says that the abnormalities could be formed by both gene mutations and environmental factors together. Experts who were not involved in the study have pointed out that the results are preliminary and that further, larger studies would be required to see if these clusters caused problems and if it was truly common in autism.
The cause of autism has been researched for decades and it is increasingly believed that the cause originates before birth. In the past other causes suggested included childhood vaccines, however it is becoming clearer that this isn’t the case.
Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, Dr Thomas Insel said that the authors used advanced researching techniques to examine cellular and molecular markers in more detail than previous research. Of the study in question, Dr Insel said it “highlights the critical need” for autopsy brain tissue in order to gain a better understanding of autism.