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Autistic Brains Show a Key Difference

Males with autism have fewer neurons in centers linked to emotion, study finds

WEDNESDAY, July 19, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- New research shows that males with autism have fewer neurons in the amygdala, an area of the brain that plays a role in emotion and memory.

Neurons are brain cells responsible for creating and transmitting electrical signals. This study, by a team from the University of California, Davis, is the first to identify this distinct neuroanatomical feature in the brains of people with autism.

"While we have known that autism is a developmental brain disorder, where, how and when the autistic brain develops abnormally has been a mystery," Dr. Thomas R. Insel, director of the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, said in a prepared statement.

"This new finding is important because it demonstrates that the structure of the amygdala is abnormal in autism. Along with other findings on the abnormal function of the amygdala, research is beginning to narrow the search for the brain basis of autism," Insel said.

In this study, published in the July 19 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers compared brain tissue from nine deceased males with autism to that of 10 deceased males who did not have autism. In both groups, the age at the time of death ranged from 10 to 44 years.

The brains of the males with autism had significantly fewer neurons in the entire amygdala and in its lateral nucleus, the researchers found.

The California team said their next step is to determine why people with autism have fewer neurons in the amygdala, and if other parts of the brain are also affected.

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has more about autism.

SOURCE: University of California, Davis, news release, July 18, 2006
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