Health Beat: Autism clues — seeing inside the brain

Health Beat: Autism clues — seeing inside the brain

SEATTLE - More than two million Americans have autism, and studies suggest prevalence rates increase 10 to 17 percent each year. Researchers are getting closer to understanding this mysterious disorder by looking side the brain.

It will affect one in every 88 children, but autism has no known cause and no cure.

Researchers at the University of Washington are looking for answers. They are using special glasses to measure a toddler's eye contact.

"It records what I'm seeing, so I can see whether a child is looking at my eyes or my mouth," said Dr. Wendy Stone, clinical psychologist, UW Medicine.

Scientists are also looking at brain chemistry using MRI.

"Kids with autism have about 10 percent bigger brains than other kids," said Dr. Stephen R. Dager, professor of radiology, UW Medicine.

Doctors found between ages 3 and 10, children with autism and those with developmental delays had significantly less of an important brain chemical. By age 10, however, the autism group had normal levels, but the kids with delays were still low. 

Scientists believe the study shows development isn't fixed in autism.

"We also found that, in many ways, children bloomed and grew and became really interesting and wonderful people," said Dr. Annette Estes, director, UW Autism Center, Susan & Richard Fade endowed chair, research associate professor of Speech and Hearing Sciences, University of Washington.

These new insights are bringing doctors another step closer to understanding a complex disorder.

Researchers are now studying 3-month-old babies who have siblings with autism. They want to determine if very early alterations in brain cell signaling may precede early clinical symptoms of autism.

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