A story picked up by several news outlets, including Reuters and ABC News (whose version I’m critiquing in this post), reports results of a small study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that suggest autistic children have heavier brains and an overflow of brain cells called neurons.
The study is crucial because it presents the first exhibit of hard evidence of brain development veering off course for autistic children. Previous research showed that autistic children have larger heads and brains, with key regions that develop communication overgrown.
The study, using brains of 13 boys that were donated for scientific study after their deaths, discovered that brains of autistic children have 67 percent more neurons in the prefrontal cortex than non-autistic brains. The prefrontal cortex is linked to emotional, social and communication processing. The study’s lead author notes how surprising the finding was, also suggesting the abnormal development occurs in the prenatal stages as neurons aren’t generated in the prefrontal cortex after birth. Autistic brains also weighed 17.5 percent more than non-autistic brains.
While a future avenue could be explored in the research to find a cause, many point out the findings are preliminary and don’t apply to children and families currently dealing with autism. There is also no way to analyze brain tissue of living children.
The small sample size and lack of immediate impact may discourage some readers upon encountering this story. However, the findings are notable with several major outlets offering their version of the results published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Although not new, the story does reveal through autism brain research that a physical characteristic that could possibly signal the condition exists, but not every person with a larger-than-average head will automatically develop the disability.
As with most study findings, extrapolating the results to a form that fits mainstream journalism remains simple, yet difficult. When combining the small number of brains studied with the lack of any immediate significance for the autism community, the challenge for reporters is seeking a relevant development for a scientific breakthrough. In this case, Gann points out that discovering that an abnormal development occurs before birth could lead to improved screening efforts in the future.
Another possible avenue that could be investigated with the knowledge of this study are what effects larger, heavier brains with more neurons could have on autistic people. Several stories on this blog and general knowledge will highlight the untapped gifts of the autism spectrum, including superior memory skills and focus. This is by no means a suggestion that larger brains equal smarter people, but considering the astonishment from the public when autistic people demonstrate skills with general knowledge, but a plethora of stories relating to autism and the brain could be found should this study lead to more examinations.
For now, we’ll have to settle for current methods of diagnosis as science always approaches its studies with a methodical attitude.