According to a recent study, children with enlarged brains face an increased risk of autism. The research, conducted by the University of North Carolina’s School of Medicine, has identified a correlation between the size and composition of a child’s brain and the likelihood of developing autism later in life.

The study focused on infants, particularly those with a family history of autism. It discovered that infants with both a genetic predisposition to autism and abnormally enlarged brain regions had a 2.2 times greater chance of being diagnosed with autism compared to infants with the same genetic background but normal brain sizes.

One significant aspect the researchers examined was the presence of enlarged perivascular spaces (PVS) in the brains of infants. PVS are small fluid-filled channels that facilitate the movement of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in the central nervous system, aiding in waste removal and maintaining brain health.

Disruptions to this fluid regulation process can lead to various neurological issues, including cognitive decline and developmental delays. The study found that infants with enlarged PVS had a higher risk of autism diagnosis by the age of two.

Dr Dea Garic, co-author of the study, noted that these findings suggest that monitoring perivascular spaces could serve as an early indicator for autism. Additionally, the research revealed a connection between enlarged PVS in infancy and sleep problems in later childhood, further emphasising the long-term impact of brain composition on health outcomes.

The study involved analysing brain scans of 311 infants, tracking them from six to 24 months of age. By observing changes in brain structure over time, researchers found that a significant portion of infants later diagnosed with autism exhibited enlarged PVS by 12 months, with nearly half showing this anomaly by 24 months.

Furthermore, the study linked excessive CSF volume in infants at six months old to enlarged PVS at two years old, indicating a potential predictive factor for autism risk.

The research also explored the relationship between PVS, CSF volume, and sleep disturbances in childhood. It revealed that disrupted sleep patterns could affect CSF clearance from PVS, leading to their enlargement and subsequent sleep issues in children aged seven to 12.

Dr Garic highlighted the significance of these findings, especially considering the challenges in diagnosing autism, which typically occurs around age four in the UK. The study sheds light on potential early markers for autism and underscores the importance of monitoring brain development in infancy.

Autism, affecting one in 100 children in the UK, manifests in difficulties with social interaction, communication, and repetitive behaviours. Senior author Dr Mark Shen emphasised that abnormalities in CSF dynamics during the first year of life could have far-reaching effects, including autism diagnosis, sleep problems, and neuroinflammation.

Overall, the study underscores the importance of early intervention and monitoring in children at risk for autism, providing insights into the complex interplay between brain development and neurodevelopmental disorders.

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