Brain development in autism: Early overgrowth followed by premature arrest of growth


  • Eric Courchesne

    Corresponding author
    1. Center for Autism Research, Children's Hospital Research Center, La Jolla, California, and Neurosciences Department, School of Medicine, University of California at San Diego, La Jolla, California
    • Center for Autism Research, 8110 La Jolla Shores Drive, La Jolla, CA 92037
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Due to the relatively late age of clinical diagnosis of autism, the early brain pathology of children with autism has remained largely unstudied. The increased use of retrospective measures such as head circumference, along with a surge of MRI studies of toddlers with autism, have opened a whole new area of research and discovery. Recent studies have now shown that abnormal brain overgrowth occurs during the first 2 years of life in children with autism. By 2–4 years of age, the most deviant overgrowth is in cerebral, cerebellar, and limbic structures that underlie higher-order cognitive, social, emotional, and language functions. Excessive growth is followed by abnormally slow or arrested growth. Deviant brain growth in autism occurs at the very time when the formation of cerebral circuitry is at its most exuberant and vulnerable stage, and it may signal disruption of this process of circuit formation. The resulting aberrant connectivity and dysfunction may lead to the development of autistic behaviors. To discover the causes, neural substrates, early-warning signs and effective treatments of autism, future research should focus on elucidating the neurobiological defects that underlie brain growth abnormalities in autism that appear during these critical first years of life. MRDD Research Reviews 2004;10:106–111. © 2004 Wiley-Liss, Inc.