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Research on Brain Cell Development

This page is dedicated to the families who made the difficult choice to support brain research by donating their loved ones' brain tissue. Postmortem research is essential in discovering microstructural brain differences in autism and this research is not possible without the strength and foresight of these incredible families.

We hope that, in some small way, our research brings meaning to your loss. Thank you.

Brain tissue research

A Look at the BrainTo explore the brain-based cause and manifestation of autism, it is necessary to look at postmortem brain tissue. Doing so gives us a first-hand view of the changes in brain cells (neurons):

  • if they are misshapen
  • if they are located in incorrect regions
  • if there are too many/too few of them

Brain growth linked with excess cells counts

The Autism Center of Excellence has identified a possible driver for brain overgrowth in boys with autism. In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (see the abstract at Courchesne and colleagues, 2011), we discovered a 67% excess in the number of neurons found in brain regions of boys with autism associated with social, communication and cognitive development. Co-investigator Peter Mouton was able to identify this excess cell count using blinded (un-biased) stereological methods. This finding suggests a potential cause for the rapid change in growth trajectories observed in autistic infants toddlers. Understanding the impact of the increased neuron numbers on development in autistic children will provide additional insight into the actual brain-based mechanisms underpinning the disorder.

Next steps: Understanding why and what impact more cells will have

The ACE is actively involved in exploring this finding with the help of our collaborators. Conducting postmortem research is exceptionally challenging and requires a skilled team of researchers, capable institutes, and agencies to provide high quality research materials. Leading the next steps of this research are ACE Director Eric Courchesne, Ed Lein at the Allen Institute for Brain Sciences, Sophia Colamarino, and Tony Wynshaw-Boris. None of this work would be possible without the great resources provided by the NIH Developmental Brain and Tissue Bank and the Autism BrainNet (formerly known as the Autism Tissue Program).

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