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It is generally accepted that autism is caused by abnormalities in brain structures or functions. Using a variety of new research tools to study human and animal brain growth, scientists are discovering more about normal development and thus how abnormalities occur.
The brain of a fetus develops throughout pregnancy. Starting out with a few cells, the cells grow and divide until the brain contains billions of specialized cells, called neurons. Research sponsored by NIMH and other components at the Nation Institutes of Health is playing a key role in showing how cells find their way to a specific area of the brain and take on special functions. Once in place, each neuron sends out long fivers that connect with other neurons. In this way, lines of communication are established between various areas of the brain and between the brain and the rest of the body. As each neuron receives a signal it releases chemicals called neurotransmitters, which pass the signal to the next neuron. By birth the bran had evolved into a complex organ with several distinct regions and sub regions, each with a precise set of functions and responsibilities. Brain development, however doesn’t stop at birth. The brain continues to change during the first few years of life, as new neurotransmitters become activated and additions lines of communication are established. Neural networks are forming and creating a foundation for processing language, emotions and thoughts.
However, scientists now know that a number of problems may interfere with normal brain development. Cells may migrate to the wrong place in the brain. Or, due to problems with neural pathways or the neurotransmitters, some parts of the communication network may fail to perform. A problem with the communication network may interfere with the overall tasks of coordinating sensory information, thoughts, feelings, and actions.
Researchers supported by NIMH and other NIH Institutes ar...
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