(HealthDay News) -- Contrary to common medical thought, young children with autism do not have accelerated brain growth even though their brains appear enlarged, new research claims.
The finding, published in the Aug. 22 issue of Neurology, confirms some earlier reports and conflicts with others.
Dr. Stephen Dager, of the University of Washington School of Medicine, and his colleagues compared 60 autistic children to 16 children with developmental delay and 10 children with typical development. They used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to measure the transverse relaxation (T2) of gray and white matter in the children's cortexes. This measures how much water is moving around inside brain tissue, and it gives clinicians an indirect way to measure brain maturation.
The researchers found the autistic children had differences in the gray matter of their brains compared to the children with typical development. A number of studies has suggested the brains of younger children with autism are 10 percent larger, Dager explained. This new research honed in on tissue chemistry and found the abnormality wasn't due to lack of "pruning," which is how the normal developing brain rids itself of unnecessary neurons.
The abnormality is "clearly not accelerated brain growth. An alternative hypothesis could be inflammatory processes. Our data would be consistent with adult studies that found higher levels of cytokines, associated with inflammation, in postmortem studies," he explained.
A popular current theory is that autistic children have more rapid brain growth that plateaus at the age of 5 or 6. "We didn't find evidence for that, just the opposite, in fact," Dager said. "The processes that go along with brain maturation were slower in the autistic brains, particularly in gray matter."
The finding is "tantalizing," said Andrew Shih, director of research and programs at the National Alliance for Autism Research. "This is one of the first attempts to differentiate beyond volumetric difference to really look at what's behind those differences."
The field, he explained, has been "intrigued by reports last year that suggest a model of autism could be premature development or unchecked brain growth leading to disorganized circuitry. The thinking was, synaptic pruning didn't occur, so that noise became predominant over signal itself."
But Dager's study suggests gray matter development in autism involves the same volume as normal brains, but fewer neurons. "The convergence of evidence now seems to suggest a model in which gray matter abnormality could be inflammatory. T2 measures water molecules, and the findings here suggest there's more water in these kids' brains...," Shih explained.
The differences in gray matter were found only in the brains of autistic children, while both gray and white matter differences were found in the brains of children with learning delays. For children with learning delays, the findings suggest slowed neuronal development is to blame, while autistic children have a different kind of neuronal development abnormality, possibly induced by inflammation. Gray matter consists of the brain's neurons, while white matter is the brain's wiring system.
Another important finding, that gray matter seems to be affected differently in autism, supports earlier research. "There's evidence of connectivity problems at older ages; in younger ages, it seems gray matter is problematic. Autism is a developmental problem and evolves as people age," he noted.
Autism affects up to one in every 175 school-age children, according to a recent study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The government researchers also found that boys are nearly four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls, and Hispanic parents were slightly less likely than non-Hispanic whites to report a child with autism, although this may be due to cultural or other factors, including access to medical care.
In the end, the findings only add another piece to the jigsaw puzzle that is autism, Dager said, adding, "We're no closer to a treatment."
Other new research is also starting to unravel common beliefs about this disorder. In addition to social interaction problems, a study in the current issue of Child Neuropsychology found autism prevents different parts of the brain from working together. That makes complex tasks, such as tying shoelaces, much more difficult. The children studied were 8 to 15 years old.
For more information on autism, go to National Institute of Mental Health.