New research finds autistic children’s brains have far more neurons in the prefrontal cortex than those of kids who don’t have the disease.

Study author Eric Courchesne, a professor of neurosciences at the University of California’s San Diego School of Medicine and director of the Autism Center of Excellence, said, “For the first time, we have the potential to understand why autism gets started. Creating brain cells and the correct number of brain cells is absolutely fundamental to building the brain.”

“If there is an excess number of neurons,” he added, “there must be a negative consequence to that in the way the brain gets wired or organized.”

His study of 13 deceased boys — six with autism and seven without — who were between 2 and 16 at the time of death showed the autistic children had about 67 percent more neurons, which are a type of brain cell and a fundamental building block of the nervous system.

While non-autistic kids had about 1.16 billion neurons in the prefrontal cortex, autistic children had about 1.94 billion, leading researchers to believe that whatever goes wrong in autism starts in utero. These findings should give researchers a more focused starting-point when looking for the causes or triggers of autism, including specific genes or prenatal exposures.

“Now let’s find out what genes or what in-utero, non-genetic conditions lead to an excess number of neurons,” said Dr. Courchesne.

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