Studies of infant siblings of older autistic probands, who are at elevated risk for autism, have demonstrated that the defining features of autism are not present in the first year of life but emerge late in the first and into the second year. A recent longitudinal neuroimaging study of high-risk siblings revealed a specific pattern of brain development in infants later diagnosed with autism, characterized by cortical surface area hyper-expansion in the first year followed by brain volume overgrowth in the second year that is associated with the emergence of autistic social deficits. Together with new observations from genetically defined autism risk alleles and rodent models, these findings suggest a conceptual framework for the early, post-natal development of autism. This framework postulates that an increase in the proliferation of neural progenitor cells and hyper-expansion of cortical surface area in the first year, occurring during a pre-symptomatic period characterized by disrupted sensorimotor and attentional experience, leads to altered experience-dependent neuronal development and decreased elimination of neuronal processes. This process is linked to brain volume overgrowth and disruption of the refinement of neural circuit connections and is associated with the emergence of autistic social deficits in the second year of life. A better understanding of the timing of developmental brain and behavior mechanisms in autism during infancy, a period which precedes the emergence of the defining features of this disorder, will likely have important implications for designing rational approaches to early intervention.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
This work was supported by an NIH Autism Center of Excellence grant (NIMH and NICHD #HD055741 to J.P); NIMH #MH104324 (JTE), the Angelman Syndrome Foundation (MJZ) and a NIH Pioneer Award DP1ES024088 (MJZ).