Abnormal amygdala growth may indicate childhood autism

Researchers from the Children’s Brain Imaging Study Network (IBIS) have pointed out that children with autism experience abnormal amygdala growth while they are babies. It is already common knowledge that autistic amygdala are larger, but this is the first time it has been pointed out when this process begins.

Using MRI scans, the research found that overgrowth begins between six and 12 months of age, the period before characteristic autism behaviors begin to be noticed.

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However, the amygdala of these babies is not bigger than usual, they just grew faster than seen in other babies. “We also found that the rate of amygdala overgrowth in the first year is linked to the child’s social deficits at two years,” said first author Mark Shen.

“The faster the amygdala grew in childhood, the more social difficulties the child had when diagnosed with autism a year later,” he continued.

During the research, a total of 408 babies were analyzed, including 58 babies most likely to develop autism (by having siblings with the disorder) who were later diagnosed with autism, 212 babies most likely to have autism but who did not, 109 typically developing controls and 29 infants with fragile X syndrome.

For now, it is still not possible to state the reason for the abnormal growth of the amygdala with the diagnosis of autism. However, it is believed that the problem may be associated with chronic stress.

Abnormal amygdala growth may indicate childhood autism. Image: SewCream/Shutterstock

And this stress may be linked to the way babies who develop autism respond to visual and sensory stimuli in their surroundings.

“Our research suggests that an ideal time to initiate interventions and support children most likely to develop autism may be during the first year,” said senior author Joseph Piven.

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