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Social maturation of the brain differs in newborns vulnerable to autism spectrum disorders

Having a first-degree relative with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) was associated with the dismaturation of social brain circuits in newborns, according to data from the study published in JAMA Network Open.

Researchers abstracted data from the European Autism Interventions Brain Imaging in Babies study, for which term newborns (> 37 weeks) underwent magnetic resonance imaging with a dedicated system of neonatal brain imaging. The image was taken between June 23, 2015 and August 1, 2018 at St Thomas Hospital in London, England. Neonates with (R+) and without (R) a first degree relative with ASD was selected for inclusion. The brain regions responsible for the social function were selected for analysis; the level of synchronous activity in each region was used as a local functional connectivity metric.

The final cohort comprised 18 R+ infants (13 boys; [range] post-menstrual age on examination, 42.93 [40.00-44.86] weeks) and 18 R infants (13 boys; [range] post-menstrual age on examination, 42.50 [39.29-44.58] weeks). Neonates that were R+ had significantly higher levels of synchronous activity in the right and left parietal spindle cortices P = 0.04) compared to its R homologues. Significant group-age interactions were identified in the left insula (P = 0.04), right and left anterior cingulate (both P = 0.03) and right and left posterior cingulate cortex (both P = 0.03). Specifically, R+ infants exhibited higher synchronous activity in these regions compared to R infants at a younger post-menstrual age, while those who were examined when older showed otherwise. Between R In newborns, a clear and maturational pattern of increasing synchronous activity was observed in the course of 39 to 45 weeks of postmenstrual age, compared with a slight decrease in R+ babies.

The researchers suggested that the study be replicated with a larger set of data and longitudinal design. They also recognized the "novelty" of including a parent with ASD as a risk for ASD in offspring.

Newborns with ASD vulnerability experienced significant differences in levels of synchronous activity and maturation in the major components of the social brain, suggesting that ASD-related deviation in typical brain maturation may occur in the uterus.

"Future fetal and neonatal imaging studies will help map the development of the social brain and can examine with utility what … may modify activity in the typical infant or even what may normalize aberrant activity in children vulnerable to adverse outcomes" , the researchers concluded.


Ciarrusta J, O & Muircheartaigh J, Dimitrova R, et al. Functional social brain maturation in newborns with and without a family history of autism spectrum disorder. JAMA Netw Open. 2019; 2 (4): e191868

This article originally appeared in Psychiatry Advisor

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