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Brain markers of autism

Changes in the organization of neurons in the cortex (the outer layer of the cerebrum) may be linked to the development of autism, which is a spectrum of disorders that interfere with communication and relationship skills and whose causes are not yet well understood. In a recent study, researchers examined the brains of 22 children who had died between the ages of 2 and 15, half of whom had been diagnosed with autism. Using molecular markers, the scientists observed that 10 of the 11 autistic children displayed unusual patches in their temporal and prefrontal lobes, which are the regions that influence social behavior and personal expression. No patches were found in 10 of the 11 children who had not presented autism (New England Journal of Medicine, March 2014). According to the researchers, these patches are indicative of disturbances in the development of the cortex, which begins to form around the fifth month of pregnancy. The team does not yet know what triggers these changes or how they affect behavior. One hypothesis is that they are associated with genetic or environmental factors or with errors in brain cell division.