New imaging technique may enhance understanding of autism

Myelination problems may be a contributor to autism.

A new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience indicates that a new brain imaging technique may help shed light on the  risk of autism and intellectual disabilities via a new understanding of  myelination.

Myelination is the technique by which the brain, in the first few months of life, forms the insulating layers around nerve cells. This process is vital to normal function of the brain, and researchers said that damage during this process is believed to be a contributing factor in an entire range of neurological and psychiatric disorders, which includes both autism and intellectual disabilities.

In this study, researchers from King’s College London scanned 14 full-term, healthy babies. Between ages three months and 11 months, researchers scanned the infants each month to build up the image of myelin development. According to researchers, by age nine months, myelination was visible in these healthy babies in all brain areas. Additionally, some regions of the brain had shown development to an almost adult-like level.

“We already know that insulating myelin sheaths form the cornerstone of our neurodevelopment,” said lead author Dr. Sean Deoni, Institute of Psychiatry at KCL. “Without them, messages to and from the brain would be in disarray. Our new imaging technique opens up an exciting new avenue to investigate early-stage brain development which could be pivotal in understanding devastating disorders such as autism, intellectual disability and developmental delay.”

Very premature babies, the researchers wrote, can be particularly prone to myelination damage. “By understanding exactly how myelin develops and when this process breaks down, we hope to be able to tailor treatments for vulnerable patients, such as premature babies,” Dr. Deoni said, “and understand what differentiates those that develop normally from those who have some delay or disability.”

Until this new MRI scanning technique was developed, science was unable to show just how myelination developed in babies, Professor Declan Murphy, Institute of Psychiatry at KCL, said, and he thanked the families involved in the study.

“Their contribution has provided the crucial first step towards a model for healthy brain development,” Professor Murphy said. “We can now use this model to understand how differences in the way our brains ‘connect up’ relates to neurological and intellectual disorders that may not become apparent until later in life. For example a next step is to scan premature babies and see how their myelin development differs from babies born full term; and how connections in the brains of babies who are at greater risk for developing autism differ from others.”

The research project used the A.I.M.S. Network (Autism Imaging Multicentre Study).