Researchers Find That Autism Actually Begins In Utero, but Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Freak Out

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Fresh new research published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that though symptoms of autism may not be obvious until your child is a toddler, the disorder actually begins while baby’s still developing — in utero.

According to the study, conducted by the Autism Center of Excellence at the University of California, San Diego, when researchers studied brain tissue taken from children who had died (that also had autism) they found patches of disorganization in the cortex, which revealed a thin sheet of cells critical for learning and memory. In “healthy” children, these patches of cells are nonexistent. The premise for the research came from lead study author Eric Courchesne. He had studied the development of the cortex in children with autism and found that in typically developing kids the cortex is very much like a “layer cake.” He said, “There are six layers, one on top of the other, and in each layer there are different types of brain cells.”

On a hunch, Courchesne suspected that these layers might be altered in the brains of children with autism. He and a dedicated team set out to find whether or not that hypothesis was true. They tested samples of cortex from 11 deceased children with autism and 11 typically-developing children. Each piece of cortex studied came from areas known to be associated with symptoms of autism.

They found that in brain tissue from typical children each of the six layers is made up of a specific type of cell, but for children with autism, researchers noticed patches with specific cells in specific layers that seemed to be missing. So instead of having distinct layers, researchers noticed a disorganized collection of brain cells. Courchesne surmised that these patches of disorganized cortex would have different effects on each brain, depending on where they occur and how many there are, which could help explain why the symptoms and instances of autism vary so much from child to child.

Because organization of the cortex begins in baby during the second trimester of a woman’s pregnancy, around 20 weeks, Courchesne believes that something must go wrong then — or before the second trimester begins, in the first trimester. It reaffirms the belief that treatment should begin in early childhood when a child’s brain is capable of rewiring to work around damaged areas, as well as bolster efforts of research groups to understand and identify how genes control brain development and lead to autism.

Interestingly enough, Courchesne says that the findings lead him to think that a child’s brain may naturally try to compensate for the damage by rewiring to avoid some of those “trouble spots.” He added, “That’s one of our guesses about how it is that autistic children, with treatment, very commonly get better.” Courchesne’s study only confirms the findings from earlier research that found people with autism tend to have genetic changes that could disturb the formation of layers in the cortex.

While the amazing new research could make early interventions, treatments and education widespread and available to parents at a very early point, one thing that moms- and dads-to-be shouldn’t lose sight of is the sample size. Researchers only studied 22 children, half of them deceased, which means before there’s a formal recommendation on testing, treatments and warning signs, researchers will need to test and confirm their hypotheses on hundreds of thousands of children.

What are your tips for having a healthy, stress-free first trimester?

Plus, more from The Bump:

Autism: What Every Parent Needs to Know

How Can I Know That My Baby’s Okay?