Autism risk, walking linked via brain connections
From the WashU Newsroom…
Scientists have identified brain networks involved in a baby’s learning to walk — a discovery that eventually may help predict whether infants are at risk for autism.
The findings build on previous research that has shown that babies who have delays in developing skills involved in coordination and movement are more likely to be diagnosed subsequently with autism spectrum disorder.
The new study by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and other scientists is available online in the journal Cerebral Cortex.
In brain scans and motor skills evaluations of nearly 200 babies, the researchers unexpectedly found that part of a brain network that operates in adults when the brain seems to be doing nothing is involved in learning to walk and control motor functions. This network — called the default-mode network — is active during sleep and daydreaming and when a person is thinking about one’s self and one’s environment, including that individual’s social ability, which is disrupted in people with autism spectrum disorder.
Previous research has shown that people with Alzheimer’s disease and autism often have disruptions in the default-mode network.
“Walking is a huge gross motor milestone, and it’s associated with a child’s understanding of his or her own body in relation to the environment,” said first author Natasha Marrus, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of child psychiatry at Washington University. “That the default-mode network is involved is important because that network is thought to be very involved in developing one’s own sense of self. Our findings may allow us to identify the brain regions and networks that can predict aspects of autism before it’s possible to make a clinical diagnosis.”
Marrus worked with colleagues from the multicenter Infant Brain Imaging Study (IBIS) network, performing functional brain scans on 187 young children while they were sleeping. They scanned the children near their first birthdays and again about a year later and evaluated gross motor skills at those same times.