Autism can be diagnosed in children as young as 18-months-old. In a new study, researchers trace atypical development as early as the stages of brain organization, making individual brain cells.

The paper was recently published in the Elsevier journal Biological Psychiatry by the team from King's College London and Cambridge University. Their research assesses how biomarkers of autism can be traced as early as the prenatal development stage.

Autism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental condition affecting behavior, speech, and social skills. The US Centers for Disease Control estimated that about one out of every 54 children is affected by autism in the United States. Signs of autism usually occur at the age of two or three years old and may be associated with delayed developments.

Using Stem Cells

Dr. Deepak Srivastava from the MRC Centre for Neurodevelopmental Disorders and Department of Basic and Clinical Neuroscience at King's College London shared that they 'we used induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPSCs, to model early brain development.' They discovered that brain cell development is slightly different between autistic and typical individuals.

The team compared the cells from hair samples of nine people with autism and six people without the condition. Treating the cells with various growth factors, the hair cells were driven to become neurons or nerve cells found in the midbrain and cortex regions.

The iPCSs kept each individuals' genetic identity as the cell development replicated prenatal development in the womb. Mimicking early brain development helped identify unique factors associated with autism.

Dr. Dwaipayan Adhya from Cambridge's Autism Research Centre and the neuroscience department at King's College London shared that using stem cells 'is the most ethical way to study early brain development in autistic people.' Unlike other studies that require animal models before human trials, using hair or skin samples is a non-invasive method to study genetics.

Stem Cell Research Traces Autism in Prenatal Neuron Development
(Photo: pxhere)

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Neuron Development

During different stages of cell development, the team sequenced their RNA to see which genes were being expressed. On the ninth day of neuron development, typical people had neural rosettes or floral-shaped neurons.

In contrast, autistic cells formed either smaller rosettes or had no floral shapes. Developmental genes from people with autism were also less expressed.

At three weeks to 35 days, the cell developments had more significant differences meaning that autism can be traced back to neurons in the cortex. Cortical neurons typically help with the development of neurons in the midbrain, a brain region not been previously associated with autism dysfunction.

"The use of iPSCs allows us to examine more precisely the differences in cell fates and gene pathways that occur in neural cells from autistic and typical individuals. These findings will hopefully contribute to our understanding of why there is such diversity in brain development," said Dr. Srivastava. It is also not the intention of the team to 'cure' autism but rather to help with overall brain development and valuing neurodiversity, shared Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre.

READ: Thomas the Tank Engine Song Brings Lost Autistic Boy Into Safety After Being Lost in the Woodlands for Two Days

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