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‘Significant’ autism study pinpoints prenatal period

A diverse team of researchers, including some from USF Health Byrd Alzheimer's Institute, has confirmed that autism arises during the prenatal period, not after a baby is born.

Published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the study confirmed that autistic children's brains have an overabundance of a type of brain cells that is produced only before birth.

The director of the National Institute of Mental Health called the finding a "significant scientific advance."

Funded in part by the National Institutes of Health, the study used a new technique for counting brain cells that eliminates some of the biases of older methods, the team said.

Co-leaders of the study were Eric Courchesne of the University of California at San Diego and Peter R. Mouton of the Byrd center.

“Earlier studies of head circumference and overall early brain overgrowth have pointed us in this direction, but it’s been a difficult path to pursue," Thomas R. Insel, NIMH director, said in a press release. "Only through the generous and selfless act of brain donation and the dedication of researchers to answering tough questions could such a significant scientific advance be achieved."

According to a USF release, the study involved the blind comparison of postmortem brain tissue from seven children with autism, ages 2 to 16, with similar brain tissue from six aged-matched children who showed no evidence of neurological or psychological trouble.

Courchesne collected the brain material, which USF's Byrd center analyzed with state-of-the-art computers, the release said. The study involved the prefrontal cortex, which plays a critical role in social skills and communication, behaviors affected by autism.

For more details, see coverage by HealthDay.

Carol Gentry, founder and special correspondent of Health News Florida, has four decades of experience covering health finance and policy, with an emphasis on consumer education and protection.