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The brains of infants who develop the disorder grow too fast, a UNC-Chapel Hill discovery that could help doctors prevent impairments before they appear.

National Geographic magazine featured research from the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities, led by Joseph Piven, MD, CIDD director and the Thomas E. Castelloe Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry, Pediatrics and Psychology at the UNC School of Medicine.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Scientists know that autism can be caused by a number of genes, both inherited and mutated, as well as other factors, such as the advanced age of a parent. One fraudulent study blamed it on the childhood vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella – a provocative claim that has been disproved. Since the late 1990s, the disorder has become increasingly prevalent. Researchers believe that’s partly explained by improvements in diagnosis, but they haven’t ruled out the possibility that the incidence is increasing, possibly due to biological and environmental factors.

Although researchers haven’t established the precise origins of autism, they’re gaining a clearer view of how it progresses.

Joseph Piven, a psychiatrist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and his col- leagues studied 106 infants who had an older sibling with autism, which meant they had a higher chance of developing the disorder. Scan- ning their brains at six months and again at 12 and 24 months using magnetic resonance imag- ing, the researchers found striking differences between the infants who later developed autism and those who didn’t. The brains of infants who were subsequently diagnosed with the disorder grew faster than the others starting at six months, expanding more in surface area until 12 months, and then became larger in volume in the second year of life, the team reported in 2017.”

The complete article, which is behind a pay wall, includes the image featured here.