Late last year, a study from tissue researchers at NYU showed angiogenesis in brains of people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Angiogenesis is the creation of new blood vessels in the brain which normally stops around age 2. Because of the study of post-mortem brain tissue, researchers were able to find evidence that in people with ASD, the development of blood vessels in the brain is in flux and changing across the lifespan. Dr. Ephraim Azmitia, the lead author of the study that was able to complete this investigation because of the Autism BrainNet, explains the research here.
Q: Dr. Azmitia, please explain what you found.
A: In 2014 we first discovered that brain blood vessels in the brains of people with ASD, but not those not diagnosed with ASD, showed continuous angiogenesis. We have spent all our time focused on this observation and have now published a full-length paper in Journal of Autism and Development Disorders entitled Persistent Angiogenesis in the Autism Brain. We found that splitting angiogenesis (not sprouting angiogenesis) is found in every area of the brain from ASD donors that we examined; cortex from auditory and face recognition areas, general temporal association cortical areas, midbrain, pons and cerebellum. The angiogenesis continued even in brains from donors over the age of 28 while it was only lightly seen in very young brains (< 2 years) of typically developing donors.
Q: Why is this important?
A: First, our findings demonstrated that autism affects the whole brain, not just one localized region. While certain brain regions have been targeted based on behavioral studies, the whole brain should be considered.
Second, it appears blood vessels in the brain are involved in ASD. Splitting angiogenesis occurs when blood vessels are reorganizing, usually to supply more active neurons and glial cells with additional oxygen and nutrients. This implies that brains cells of autistic patients may be more active and dynamic than those without autism. It is possible splitting angiogenesis keeps cells richly supplied with blood so they retain their highly interactive condition, and fail to form more stable connections needed for mature complex functions such as language and social behaviors.
Q: Will this lead to new interventions?
A: Therapies and drugs are widely available to control dividing vascular cells, such as seen in tumor growth. Unfortunately, most of these drugs are targeted for spouting angiogenesis, which is the form of vascular growth seen in tumor formation. Future research on regulating this type of angiogenesis is needed which then needs to be studied to determine if it helps ease symptoms.
Q: How can I contribute to this type of research?
A: Scientific research like this is not possible without the ability to study the brains of people with autism. To register, go to www.takesbrains.org.