A study from the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Hospital has contributed to the growing body of research focused on uncovering the neurological forces that shape autism spectrum disorders.  Researchers found that there are certain chemical alternations that take place in the brain in children with autism. Additionally, they found that this abnormality had generally disappeared by the time children reached the age of nine or ten.

In the study, researchers performed a type of MRI—magnetic resonance spectroscopic imaging—on children aged three to ten who either had an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis, a developmental delay, or who were typically developing. The children were divided into three groups based on age: three to four years old, six to seven years old, and nine to ten years old.

The researchers analyzed a number of tissue-based chemicals, but the most important was N-acetylapartate—a chemical that is involved in regulating synaptic connections as well as other aspects of neural development. Previous research has established that people who have Alzheimer’s or who have experienced a traumatic brain injury or stroke have lower levels of this chemical.

This research found low concentrations of N-acetylapartate in the groups of three to four year olds who had an autism spectrum disorder or developmental delay. However, the children in the nine to ten years old group showed normal levels of N-acetylapartate in all three groups, indicating that the children with autism or developmental delays catch up to their typically developing peers sometime between ages four and nine.

Annette Estes, study co-author and director of the UW Autism Center commented, “A substantial number of kids with early, severe autism symptoms make tremendous improvements. We’re only measuring part of the iceberg, but this is a glimmer that we might be able to find a more specific period of vulnerability that we can measure and learn how to do something more proactively.”

This research might help in early identification of children with autism and allow for earlier interventions. This study also suggests that autism spectrum disorders and developmental delays have discrete underlying brain mechanisms.

This research is published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry.

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