Autism may begin during pregnancy; rates soar, study says


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SALT LAKE CITY — Children with autism often aren't diagnosed until they are a toddler, but a new study finds that autism may begin before a baby is even born.

This study comes on the heels of a CDC report released this week that says rates of autism diagnoses are surging far higher than they've predicted.

Researchers for a new study released by the New England Journal of Medicine looked at brain tissue from 11 autistic children who died and compared with with 11 children without autism. In 10 of the 11 samples from the children with autism, they found "patches of disorganization in the cortex,” NPR reported.

These patches, or clusters of disorganized brain cells, came from the region of the brain that regulates communication, emotions and ability to function in social settings, things that can be difficult for children with autism.

These parts of the brain start developing during the second trimester, said Eric Courchesne, director of the Autism Center of Excellence at the University of California, San Diego and an author of the paper.

"So something must have gone wrong at or before that time," Courchesne said, according to NPR. "Because this points to the biological onset in prenatal life, it calls sharply into question other popular notions about autism.”

These popular notions include the now-refuted claims, made popular by the likes of Jenny McCarthy, that vaccinations can cause autism.

The CDC released a report this week that says there's a 30 percent increase among 8-year-olds diagnosed with autism. While the huge jump might be startling, the CDC also says this increase reflects better awareness and more accurate diagnoses.

However, the number of reported cases varies widely by state.

“The number of children identified with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) ranged from 1 in 175 children in Alabama to 1 in 45 children in New Jersey,” CDC said in its report, based on a 2010 survey.

So something must have gone wrong at or before that time... Because this points to the biological onset in prenatal life, it calls sharply into question other popular notions about autism.

–Eric Courchesne, an author of the paper

While autism rates are soaring, scientists have been scrambling to find a cause. This new study supports other research that suggests autism can begin in the brain's frontal region during pregnancy, but experts say it should be considered preliminary.

"But, this research provides probably some of the most elegant evidence for those two very important biological themes," Dr. Janet Lainhart, an autism researcher and psychiatry professor at the University of Wisconsin, told the Associated Press.

The CDC report on surging rates combined with the new study that shows autism can begin in the womb shows that it is vital to begin helping kids as early as possible to try and rewire their brains, experts say.

“The most important thing for parents to do is to act early when there is a concern about a child’s development,” Dr. Marshalyn Yeargin-Allsopp, chief of CDC’s Developmental Disabilities Branch, told NBC News. “If you have a concern about how your child plays, learns, speaks, acts or moves, take action. Don’t wait.”

This study is one of the first that included samples taken from children. Most studies have only been able to look at tissue samples from adults.

Advocacy groups for autism have started a program asking for brain tissue donations to help researchers. There also websites advocating for families to get involved with the research.

Video contributing: Alex Cabrero

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Tracie Snowder


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