This is a guest post from ASF Science Writer Jerri Sparks Kaiser. Jerri, a parent of four children, one of whom has autism, blogs for ASF from a parent’s perspective about the latest autism research. A former Congressional Press Secretary, Jerri is an experienced science writer and has written specifically about autism for many years. Before her life in PR, she was a trained researcher having earned her B.A. in Psychology at UCLA. She currently lives with her family in New York.
For years, I’ve known about the groundbreaking research of Dr. Eric Courchesne because I studied his work in college. When I read his recent article “The Troublesome Bloom of Autism” in Discover Magazine, however, I was astonished. Courchesne’s latest research found that in the womb during the second trimester, and possibly the third trimester, the brains of children who are later diagnosed with autism are not experiencing the neural paring that those of typically developing children experience. That is, the autistic brains have more neurons in the prefrontal cortex than those who do not have autism, an average of 67% more. Specifically, this passage in the article floored me (bold mine):
“During the second trimester of pregnancy, the precursors to neurons in the brain divide furiously. Then they almost all stop, well before birth. When the brain gets bigger after delivery, all that is happening is that the individual neurons are growing and sprouting branches. The only time autistic children can get their extra neurons, in other words, is while they are in the womb. “We established a time zone,” Courchesne says.
That time zone rules out the old bad-mothering theory of autism, and the notion that vaccines trigger autism in toddlers. Courchesne suspects that fetal brains become autistic due to a combination of genetic and environmental influences that strike during the second and possibly third trimesters, just as neurons are dividing. It may be no coincidence that many of the genes thought to increase the risk of autism are also involved in the division of cells.” My son Jared’s development as an infant and toddler matches up with Dr. Courchesne’s findings. My son had a large head at birth and his doctor was becoming increasingly concerned about his head size and even tested him for hydrocephalus. His head circumference was literally off the charts and the area around his frontal and temporal lobes was noticeably bulging a bit. This was in 1997 and the doctor didn’t know what to make of it since my son did not have hydrocephalus. At the time, we just assumed he was taking after his father’s side of the family because the males are all quite stout, tall and large-boned individuals.
I had a normal pregnancy with my son and was not sick with any viruses. I did go into labor at 37 weeks, but other than a mild case of jaundice since he was born 3 weeks early; there was nothing unusual about Jared’s birth. I was only in labor for 3 hours and he came home from the hospital the next day.
I’ve been through the blame game, trying to discern whether or not I ate something harmful or didn’t do something right during my pregnancy. I’ve tried to cure my son by offering him every therapy known to man, by spending inordinate amounts of time with him and money on him. Eventually I accepted Jared for who he is, a most loving child with a lot to offer the world. If and when the world is ready for Jared and his multivaried talents and quirks, I will be able to rest easier at night. Courchesne’s research is helping with that because it is only through understanding the why and the how that we can begin to understand how to accept and move forward.