Study Finds Brain Abnormality in Autistic Toddlers

Toddlers with autism appear more likely to have an enlarged amygdala, which is the part of the brain associated with processing faces and expressing key emotions, a study has found.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill compared the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) results of 50 autistic children and 33 control children.

The children underwent brain scans along with testing of certain behavioral features of autism at ages 2 and 4.

Researchers observed behaviors in the children with the enlarged amygdala thought to be key predictors of social and language issues often associated with autism later in life.

"Converging evidence from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), head circumference and postmortem studies suggests that brain volume enlargement is a characteristic feature of autism, with its onset most likely occurring in the later part of the first year of life," Dr. Matthew W. Mosconi and colleagues at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill wrote in their report.

Because the amygdala has been identified as a brain area potentially associated with autism, Dr. Manny Alvarez, managing editor of health at said MRIs may be an important tool in diagnosing the disorder in its early stages.

“As of today, it is pretty well understood that earlier recognition of autism characteristics in children is important in making an accurate diagnosis — thus leading to early intervention,” Alvarez said.

Children with autism generally have developmental problems with social interaction, language and behavior. But because the symptoms vary greatly from person to person on the autistic spectrum, and appear at different stages of development, diagnosing a child with the disorder can be challenging, Alvarez told

“After reviewing the study, it seems that perhaps one assessment that needs to be recommended is an MRI starting at the age of 2,” he said. “Because when it comes down to it, with autism – as with any disorder — it’s better to have more information. And if indeed there are brain patterns on an MRI suggesting that these areas of the brain that have been identified in autistic children are enlarged — we can perhaps develop newer therapies and treatment for early intervention.”

Click here to read the full study from the Archives of General Psychiatry (subscription required).

Click here to read more on this story from the AFP.