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Autistic Children May Have Too Many Brain Cells

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The brains of autistic children have far more neurons in the prefrontal cortex than the brains of kids without autism, finds a new study that could advance research into the disorder.

"For the first time, we have the potential to understand why autism gets started," said study author Eric Courchesne, a professor of neurosciences at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine and director of the Autism Center of Excellence.

"Creating brains cells and the correct number of brain cells is absolutely fundamental to building the brain," said Courchesne. "If there is an excess number of neurons, there must be a negative consequence to that in the way the brain gets wired or organized."

In this small, preliminary study, the researchers examined postmortem brain tissue from seven boys with autism and six boys without autism who were aged 2 to 16 when they died.

The autistic children had on average 67 percent more neurons — a type of brain cell and a fundamental building block of the nervous system — than boys without autism of a similar age.

Specifically, they found autistic children had 79 percent more neurons in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and 29 percent more in the mesial prefrontal cortex than other kids.

The prefrontal cortex is key to complex thoughts and behaviors, including language, social behavior and decision-making. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is closely linked with "executive function," including planning, reasoning and "very high level cognition," said Lizabeth Romanski, an associate professor of neurobiology and anatomy at the University of Rochester Medical Center, who was not involved with the research. The mesial prefrontal cortex is thought to be important to social and other behavior and emotions.

While typically developing kids had about 1.16 billion neurons in the prefrontal cortex, autistic children had about 1.94 billion.

The study is published in the Nov. 9 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Autism is a neurodevelopment disorder characterized by problems with social interaction, communication and restricted interests and behaviors. An estimated one in 110 U.S. children — many more boys than girls — has the disorder, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Neurons are generated only during fetal development, specifically between 10 weeks and 20 weeks, Courchesne said. While neurons continue to grow in size during childhood, and brain connections get built and pruned, the number of neurons remains constant from birth.

That means that whatever goes wrong in autism starts in utero, which should help focus researchers looking for its causes or triggers, including specific genes or prenatal exposures.

"Now let's find out what genes or what in-utero, non-genetic conditions lead to an excess number of neurons," he said.

Prior research has also documented "brain overgrowth" in autistic children, but those studies were done by measuring brain circumference or MRIs, experts said. In this research, researchers were able to be more specific by counting brain cells in the prefrontal region.

"This very nicely builds on previous research and tries to explain why this increase in brain size might be, and what they find is it's because of an increased number of neurons," Romanski said.

After a period of proliferation during the second trimester, neurons are also "pruned," meaning that they undergo a planned cell death. "This pruning process, the dying off of cells, is a very important part of brain development," Romanski said.

One question that needs to be explored is whether autistic brains generate more neurons, or if they have a malfunctioning "pruning" process, she said.

Nicholas Lange, an associate professor of psychiatry and biostatistics at Harvard Medical School in Boston, cautioned that the study was small. He also said more needs to be learned, including whether excess neurons in the prefrontal cortex occur only in autism or in other developmental conditions, or even in any typically developing kids, as well.

Some of the kids with autism had many extra neurons, but not all had brains out of the normal range for weight, as would be expected. "The relationship between increased neuron count, brain overgrowth, and increased brain weight in autism is complex," Lange wrote in accompanying editorial.

Conducting postmortem brain tissue studies is a lengthy process because there are few brains available to study, Courchesne said. Eight of the 13 children whose brains were studied had drowned.

"So very seldom do people at that moment make the decision to donate their child's brain tissue for research, and in the absence of brain tissue for research, it goes very slowly," he said.


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This is kinda weird and interesting.. Personally I would think more cells would mean they have a greater ability to do more.. Like a computer having more RAM.. Maybe the reason why they have trouble communicating is because there is so much whizzing through their brains that they cannot keep up vocally.. and socially.. (Like an old computer unable to use more advanced memory) and that is why they are generally considered very intelligent.. (at least with Aspergers) Just socially awkward..

Just my thoughts on that.. And having at one point being diagnosed with Aspergers.. (A high functioning autism) and been placed on ADD / ADHD medication.. seems as though my brain caught up with my mouth and social life enough.. That being said ADD / ADHD medication generally makes a normal person have a quicker response and edgy.. So maybe that's why it caught my brain and body up to an equal speed..

But for me I honestly don't see it as a disability.. more an ability that can be developed..


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well i mean no offence, here and i guess since it is the soap box i can be honest.

autistic people scare me.... its like anything good within a human being, the things that make us care about others and form strong loving communities has been removed and replaced with a cold, calculated intelligence....its almost unhuman :(

the ones who seem to show no affection anyway

oh i didnt realise i felt so strongly... sorry guys!!! feel free to respond ;)
I wish I had aspergers or autism,I mean I'm completely socially detached,can't function at social gatherings of any kind. Yet I have this awful heightened senses shit going on,bat hearing,sensitivity,shyness,nerves,headaches coz of the stress at how bad I'm doing. I think if I have to be detached it would be bliss to have it in that kind of aloof,don't give a fuck way that autism seems to give the sufferer. Sounds bad what I said but I hope you will give me a break and just take my point.


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Actually a lot of people with Aspergers (High functioning autism) Are generally overloaded easily by stimulus.. They have heightened senses generally and are more easily affected by changes in the conditions they are in.. As well as they as socially awkward in general, because they have a hard time relating to others..

I tend to agree many people with Aspergers are more put off by social interaction / physical relationships, etc.. But I know a lot of them that do care about others.. They just are unable to express affection the way others may.. But again it all depends on the person.
Yeah a girl I went out with said that in her opinion she thought I might have aspergers. I don't know,I did an online test and ticked quite a few boxes but it wasn't a conclusive result. I do know that right back from a kid I hated change of any kind and I hated and still do hate social gatherings of any kind. It's like senses overload,I can't concentrate on any conversation,start sweating and get bad migraine. I tried getting out of my head on booze to see if that would bring me out of myself but it does nothing to help. I'm shy and have social anxiety but I wonder if social anxiety and autism or aspergers might be linked? I just mean if social anxiety is a really mild form of those things? I dunno but it's horrible being a social cripple,obviously I can't have a relationship coz nobody wants to spend time with somebody who can't go out and party.


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I know a 22 yr old girl who as aspergers. She's extremely intelligent, she's got an absolute flare for maths/science for example she self-studied A-level Maths/Further Maths at the age of like 12 or 13 as well as learned to code a computer before she even started secondary school.

Unfortunately she has bad social issues and hypersensitivity when it comes to sounds and people touching her, on top of that she's also diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and since she has such a bad 'case' of it, she's regularly psychotic and as a result gets sectioned a lot as the antipsychotics she's prescribed rarely seem to work for her.

I'm diagnosed with a mild form autism, but I dispute it since I've outgrown most of the symptoms, a lot of which were just assumptions anyway.
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