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Int Rev Neurobiol. 1993;35:87-129.

The neurobiology and genetics of infantile autism.

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1
Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University School of Medicine, California 94305.

Abstract

Autism is a syndrome with multiple etiologies, as is made clear both by the evidence of neurobiological research and by the catalog of disorders that present with autistic behaviors. What remains unclear are the specific neuropathological mechanisms that produce autistic behaviors; for example, is there a common neuroanatomic pathology for all cases of autism, or can autistic behaviors emerge from different pathological sequences within the brain? Although it is premature to generalize, neuropathological studies appear to have identified common abnormalities in the cerebellum and limbic system of at least five autistic subjects. These subjects, with variable levels of mental retardation, demonstrated marked Purkinje cell loss in the cerebellar hemispheres, together with retained fetal neuronal circuitry in cerebellar nuclei and increased neuronal packing in specific regions of the limbic system, amygdala, and hippocampus. The architecture of the cerebral cortex was not affected. Although our knowledge of brain functioning is incomplete, alterations of the kind noted in the cerebellum and limbic system could reasonably produce autistic behaviors. For more detail, readers are directed to a review of cerebellar contributions to higher functions by Schmahmann (1991). Neuroimaging studies allow less resolution of brain structure than do neuroanatomic studies, and the reported findings from neuroimaging are somewhat contradictory. However, a number of investigators have reported structural abnormalities in ventricle size and cerebral hemispheric asymmetry using CT. MRI, which offers greater resolution, has uncovered some consistent findings, along with a variety of nonspecific abnormalities. Common abnormalities include reduced volume of cerebellar hemispheres and vermal lobules--findings not inconsistent with the above-mentioned neuropathological defects. It is also interesting to note that individuals with fragile X syndrome have similar cerebellar findings. PET and NMR studies of autism are at a preliminary stage, but these methodologies allow insight into the functioning of the brain, rather than simply brain anatomy. Recent PET studies indicating decreased association between paired regions of the brains of autistic subjects are of interest, particularly if they can be confirmed and refined by additional studies. Neurophysiological studies also offer insight into brain function, but are subject to numerous methodological criticisms. Nevertheless, recent reports of diminished P300 waves and absent NC components in autistic subjects seem to indicate fundamental defects in attention and secondary processing, which could help explain the self-stimulatory behaviors often seen in autism. The disturbances in brain development associated with autism can be produced in a number of ways, and at different times during development of the nervous system.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

PMID:
8463065
[Indexed for MEDLINE]
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