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Placenta may hold autism's earliest mark

Medicine@Yale, 2006 - July Aug

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Autism, a complex disability affecting social interaction and communication skills, typically emerges in children between 1 and 3 years of age. But autism is a so-called spectrum disorder—symptoms vary widely across individuals in both degree and kind. Early diagnosis is therefore challenging, yet critical for initiating specialized intervention programs, which have the greatest impact if begun as soon as possible.

A new study by Harvey J. Kliman, M.D., Ph.D., research scientist in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences, may make it possible to diagnose autism at birth. The research, conducted with research scientist George M. Anderson, Ph.D., and colleagues at the Yale Child Study Center and published in the June 22 issue of Biological Psychiatry, shows that abnormal foldings known as trophoblast inclusions (dark purple area, center left; dark oval, lower right) appear three times more frequently in placentas of autistic children than in placentas of normal individuals.

Further studies based on these findings will seek to understand the relationship between placental abnormalities, brain development and the incidence of autism.