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The Autistic Brain

Understanding how differences in brain structure may influence autism

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In fact, Lock says there are many sites in the genome that are associated with autism, be it deletion or duplication of chromosomes that are associated with the disorder's symptoms. "The problem is those same sites pop up in studies in ADHD or language disorders or bipolar or schizophrenia, so they are not as specific as we'd like them to be," he said.

It's easy to see the complexity of autism. So far, more than 800 genes are associated with it and scientists don't understand yet what all these genes are doing. The disorder is essentially a collection of symptoms and individuals can come to these symptoms from any number of paths.

"It's like, how do you get to Chicago from here? Each one of those routes is a pathway that might lead to autism. Some are common and some are different," said Dr. Martin Plawecki, child psychiatrist and medical director of the Riley Christian Sarkine Autism Treatment Center at Indiana University Health.

Plawecki says the architecture of autistic children's brains tends to be disturbed, meaning its cells can be disorganized. A recent study by scientists at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle and the University of California at San Diego School of Medicine helps explain the disorganized structure. They examined post-mortem brain tissue samples from individuals age 2 to 15, half of whom had autism. As part of the study, the lead author created the first 3D model showing brain locations where patches of cortex failed to develop normally, according to online reports. The researchers believe this disruption of cell development likely occurred in the second and third trimesters, a time in fetal life when the brain sets up neural cell types, neural connections and neural layers. What causes the disruption remains the question.

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