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Scientists identify overgrowth of key brain structures in babies who later develop autism | My Baby My Star

mechanical engineering | Health and Medicine | Press Releases | Research | Science

March 29, 2022

The crosshairs in this photo focus on the amygdala. New research has found that in babies who develop autism, this area of ​​the brain grows too quickly during the first year of life.dr Stephen Dager/U. from Washington

Researchers have long known that the amygdala is significantly larger in school-age children diagnosed with autism, but it wasn’t known exactly when this enlargement occurs. Now, researchers at the Infant Brain Imaging Study (IBIS) Network, which includes the University of Washington, have used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to demonstrate for the first time that the amygdala grows too quickly in infancy. The overgrowth begins between 6 and 12 months of age, before the features of autism are fully apparent, potentially allowing for the earliest identification of this condition.

The new study, published March 25 in the American Journal of Psychiatry, is the first to document amygdala overgrowth before autism becomes clinical. The research was conducted by the IBIS Network, a consortium of 10 universities in the United States and Canada.

The study also showed that the increased growth of the amygdala in infants who were later diagnosed with autism was significantly different from the brain growth patterns in babies with another neurodevelopmental disorder, Fragile X syndrome, where there were no differences in the amygdala -Growth were observed.

The research found that infants with fragile X syndrome show cognitive delays as early as 6 months of age. Infants who are later diagnosed with autism do not show cognitive deficits by 6 months of age, but do show a gradual decline in cognitive abilities between 6 and 24 months, the age at which they present with an autism disorder in this study. spectrum disorder was diagnosed.

“We also found that the rate of amygdala overgrowth in the first year was related to the child’s social deficits by age two,” said first author Mark Shen, assistant professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and faculty the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities. “The faster the amygdala grew in infancy, the more social difficulties the child exhibited when diagnosed with autism a year later.”

Previous studies by the IBIS team and others have shown that although the social deficits that are a hallmark of autism are not present by 6 months of age, infants who later develop autism increase their attention to visual stimuli in the first year have changed their environment of life. The authors hypothesize that these early changes in the processing of visual and sensory information may put more stress on the amygdala and lead to its overgrowth.

“We are moving closer to understanding why autism occurs by learning more about brain growth changes early during development, in this case how amygdala growth can be affected by early sensory processing difficulties and how, conversely, changes in amygdala growth affect the.” A baby’s interaction with its parents can affect the environment,” said Dr. Stephen Dager, Professor of Radiology at the UW School of Medicine and Associate Professor of Bioengineering.

As part of the IBIS network, UW has been involved in several studies over the years. In 2019, the multicenter research team received a five-year, $9.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Mental Health to continue their efforts to determine if brain imaging can help identify infants who are likely to will develop an autism spectrum disorder.

The UW Autism Center established an infant clinic in 2017 to provide screening for infants and young children and support for caregivers. Just as with older children with autism, psychologists and behavior analysts help create treatment plans with in-clinic and home activities.

The Autism Center has also studied sleep problems in long-term research studies and in clinical settings. A 2020 UW-led study was the first to show links between the growth of the hippocampus – a key part of the brain involved in learning and memory – and sleep problems in infants who were later diagnosed with autism.

“It’s so exciting to see how the work of so many dedicated families and researchers has come together over the past 16 years to reveal things we never knew before about the development of autism,” said Annette Estes, director of the UW Autism Center. “By assessing and monitoring the development of infants with a family history of autism, we can learn about better ways to support caregivers and work to find innovative ways to help infants reach their full potential.”

The new study was funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Institute of Mental Health, Autism Speaks and the Simons Foundation.

In addition to UW and UNC at Chapel Hill, other participating institutions include the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Minnesota, New York University, the University of Texas at Dallas, Washington University, the University of Alberta, and McGill University. Imaging sites are located in Seattle, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Chapel Hill, NC, and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

For more information, contact Dager at or Estes at

Adapted from a press release from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Keyword(s): Annette Estes College of Arts & Sciences College of Engineering Institute of Bioengineering Institute of Radiology Institute of Language and Hearing Sciences Stephen Dager UW Autism Center UW Medicine

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