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Men and Boys With Autism have Fewer Neurons Than Counterparts without Autism - Brain Structure Not the Same in Autistic People

July 23rd 2006

Men and Boys With Autism have Fewer Neurons Than Counterparts without Autism - Brain Structure Not the Same in Autistic People


Researchers say that they have discovered that males with autism have fewer neurons in the amygdala than their counterparts without the condition.  David Amaral says “"This is the first quantitative evidence of an abnormal number of neurons in the autistic amygdala and the first study to use modern unbiased sampling techniques for autism research."  Amaral is the research director of the UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute.

Amaral and graduate student Cynthia Mills Schumann counted and measured representative samples of neurons in the amygdala of nine postmortem brains of autistic males.  They compared this to the brains of 10 postmortem males who did not have autism.  The subjects ranged from 10 to 44 years of age at the time of death.


They used a technique called "unbiased stereological analysis" and a computer-aided microscope to count the neurons.  They concluded that the autistic subjects had fewer neurons in the amygdale portion of their brains.

Neurons are responsible for creating and transmitting electrical impulses through the brain.  The amygdala is involved in emotion and memory.  The autistic subjects also had fewer neurons in the lateral nucleus of the amygdala. 

Dr. Thomas R. Insel said “While we have known that autism is a developmental brain disorder, where, how and when the autistic brain develops abnormally has been a mystery.  This new finding is important because it demonstrates that the structure of the amygdala is abnormal in autism. Along with other findings on the abnormal function of the amygdala, research is beginning to narrow the search for the brain basis of autism."  Insel is a physician and director of the National Institute of Mental Health.


Now affecting 1 in every 166 children and primarily affecting males, autism is a lifelong neuron-developmental disorder and is characterized by social and communication deficits. While autism has clear behavioral indicators, the neural alterations leading to the deficits have been difficult to pinpoint. In studies dating back to the mid-1980s, researchers began focusing on the amygdala because of its importance in generating appropriate emotional responses and assimilating memories that are key to social learning.  This is an important functions that are impaired by autism.

The researchers plan to look at other brain regions too.  The scientists admit that the research is in its early stages and there is much more to be done.  The study, published in the July 19 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.

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