Brain Growth in Autism

Brain overgrowth has been noted among children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Now, a new imaging study suggests that the accelerated brain growth appears before 2 years of life, offering new avenues for early identification and intervention of ASD. Investigators conducted a longitudinal magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study of 59 children with ASD and 38 control children. The children were evaluated at 2 years of age with behavioral assessments, and brain measurements were obtained through MRI. Both behavioral and MRI evaluations were repeated 24 months later, when the children were 4 to 5 years old.

Overall, the cerebral cortex of children with ASD was larger than the cerebral cortex of control children at all ages studied. The rate of growth, however, of the cerebral cortex was the same in both groups over the period of the study, indicating that the brain enlargement is due to accelerated brain growth before 2 years of age. Children with ASD also had an increase in white matter in the temporal lobe, compared to other children.

Brain enlargement is not a new finding in autism research. But, the onset and mechanism of brain overgrowth has yet to be accurately defined. Age-specific changes take place in the brain of children and adults with ASD, resulting from not only anatomic abnormalities, but also altered gene expression and molecular abnormalities. The brains of children with ASD appear to undergo accelerated growth early in life, followed by decelerated maturation. Several studies have noted that the brains of infants that will later be diagnosed with ASD are smaller than controls at birth, but experience an accelerated growth during the first year of life. Brain growth then slows, so that brain size is not different from controls by adolescence and adulthood.

ASD is most commonly diagnosed between the ages of 2 and 3 years, but symptoms can begin to appear as early as 6 and 12 months of age. As evidenced by the current study, published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, accelerated brain growth is already taking place or completed by the time the symptoms of ASD appear. If these patterns of brain growth are noted early, therapeutic interventions might be initiated early, improving outcomes for children with ASD. In the future, if genes are identified that control brain growth, they may become targets for additional therapy.

ASD is still an elusive disorder, often without clear-cut causes and diagnoses. Each clue that is uncovered offers new hope for understanding the biology and pathophysiology of ASD and directing future therapies.


Cheng Y, Chou KH, Fan YT, & Lin CP (2011). ANS: Aberrant Neurodevelopment of the Social Cognition Network in Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders. PloS one, 6 (4) PMID: 21541322

Courchesne E, Campbell K, & Solso S (2011). Brain growth across the life span in autism: age-specific changes in anatomical pathology. Brain research, 1380, 138-45 PMID: 20920490

Courchesne E, Carper R, & Akshoomoff N (2003). Evidence of brain overgrowth in the first year of life in autism. JAMA : the journal of the American Medical Association, 290 (3), 337-44 PMID: 12865374

Courchesne E, Redcay E, & Kennedy DP (2004). The autistic brain: birth through adulthood. Current opinion in neurology, 17 (4), 489-96 PMID: 15247547

Hazlett HC, Poe MD, Gerig G, Styner M, Chappell C, Smith RG, Vachet C, & Piven J (2011). Early brain overgrowth in autism associated with an increase in cortical surface area before age 2 years. Archives of general psychiatry, 68 (5), 467-76 PMID: 21536976

Redcay E, & Courchesne E (2005). When is the brain enlarged in autism? A meta-analysis of all brain size reports. Biological psychiatry, 58 (1), 1-9 PMID: 15935993

  • Hansen Wang

    It is very interesting.

  • Amy Ray

    Other indepth research crediting Neuroscience:

    Today recent neuroscience research provides evidence that blind people process the sense of touch faster than people with normal vision. When the brain looses one of its senses, it attempts to compensate with the strengthening of another, in this case touch. Neuroscientist’s research also discovered that each blind person’s tactile perception time was virtually equivalent to their average speed of their finger moving from one Braille character to the next. The brain is an amazing part of our bodies. Since neuroscientist have been able to collect and compare all this information through out the decades. This practice has evolved in great measures. Within the past year through neuroscience we have been able to see outstanding results. Neuroscience research in now looking into the future. Research has brought us hopeful cures for even the simplest of disorders such as erasing a bad memory. Researchers at the John Hopkins University School of Medicine claim they have successfully wiped out traumatic memories in mice. These researchers claim by removing a protein from the region of the brain responsible for recalling fear. This would allow anyone who is struggling to let go of a traumatic experience the ability to move on with their life. Naturally our brain tends to have a reaction with some horrific memories to block them out through repression. Neuroscience advances this natural process of repression one step further. Hundreds of thousands of people in the United States suffer from the debilitating and often embarrassing tics caused by Tourette Syndrome. Neuroscientists have made many advancements in research to look further into ever critical components of this disorder. Their research is uncovering new clues that may help predict which cases will become most severe and find effective treatment. One day, people with Tourette Syndrome might be able to train their nervous systems to diminish and minimize intensity of tics. Neuroscience research has also developed a chip which is strategically placed in the brain, that can help prevent epileptic seizures. Researchers have been able to decode brain activity for years using electroencephalography.

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.

See All Posts By The Author

Do not miss out ever again. Subscribe to get our newsletter delivered to your inbox a few times a month.