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Autism Study Flags Differences in Developmental Brain Chemistry

Researchers note corrective 'rebound' in brains of children with autism; insights into adaptiveness of developing brain
September 09, 2013

A new study in JAMA Psychiatry reveals potentially important differences in the brain chemistry of young children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as compared to typically developing children and those with developmental delay.

Of particular note, some of these chemical differences faded over time in the children with autism – even “rebounding” to typical levels by age 10. This may indicate that their brains are adapting to regain function, the researchers suggest. By contrast, they did not see this rebound in the brain chemistry of children with developmental delay. 

“That the neurochemical differences that distinguish children with ASD are age dependent highlights the dynamic, changing nature of brain development,” comments Daniel Smith, senior director of discovery neuroscience at Autism Speaks. In addition, Dr. Smith called the study notable for demonstrating the usefulness of a relatively new and promising technology for studying brain development – proton magnetic resonance spectroscopic imaging. It differs from traditional magnetic resonance imaging by providing snapshots of chemical processes rather than physical anatomy.

In particular, the researchers collected information on the levels of several brain chemicals in 73 children at age 3 and 10 years of age. Some of the children had autism. Others had developmental delay, and still others were developing typically.

They found abnormally low levels of n-acetylspartate levels at age 3 among the children with autism as well as those with developmental delay. N-acetylspartate is among the most abundant neurochemicals in the developing brain. It regulates a wide range of important functions including memory.

N-acetylspartate rebounded to typical brain levels by age 10 in the children with autism – but not in those with developmental delay. The researchers noted less dramatic differences between the three groups of children in their levels of other brain choline and creatine.

Further study is needed to unravel the importance of these differences and how they influence brain development, Dr. Smith says.

Autism Speaks continues to fund a wealth of studies into autism-related brain development with the aim of advancing understanding, treatment and prevention. You can explore these and other funded studies using this website’s Grant Search