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Brain structure differences may explain nature of autism

July 6th, 2006

Differences in brain structure may explain the problems and strengths experienced by people with autism, a study led by a University of Louisville neuroscientist has found.

The differences lead to a lack of cooperation and coordination among brain cells, says the study, published this week in the German journal Acta Neuropathologica.

Autistic people sometimes excel at mathematics and visual discrimination because their brains are structured to make short connections, the finding suggests. However, they can have trouble speaking and recognizing faces because their brains lack the structure to make longer connections.

U of L neuroscientist Manuel Casanova and researchers at laboratories in New York, the Netherlands and Germany examined tissue samples from autistic and normal brains. They found that tiny strands of connected tissue that carry messages in the brain are narrower and packed more densely in autistic people.

Some of the densely-packed cells limit the brain’s ability to send messages over long distances within the nervous system, they also found.

Autism spectrum disorders are a group of developmental disabilities believed to stem from unusual brain development. People with the disorders generally have problems with social and communication skills and often have unusual ways of learning, paying attention and reacting to various sensations.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that as many as one in 166 American children have autism spectrum disorders.

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