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UNC Physician Discusses Autism and Brain Development

By Robin Mackar
May 2008

Frontiers of Environmental Sciences guest lecturer Joe Piven.
Frontiers of Environmental Sciences guest lecturer Joe Piven. (Photo courtesy of UNC and Joe Piven)
Lecture host David Armstrong
Lecture host David Armstrong (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

"Brain enlargement is a real phenomenon in autism," said Joseph Piven, M.D., a physician-researcher in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina (UNC) Chapel Hill, as he addressed NIEHS during the April 4 Frontiers in Environmental Sciences seminar. The talk, titled "Imaging the Developing Brain in Autism," highlighted Piven's work using magnetic resonance imaging to look at early brain development. David L. Armstrong, Ph.D., acting chief of the Laboratory of Neurobiology, NIEHS, was lecture host.

Piven and his colleagues are interested in determining the pathogenesis of autism related disorders. Much of his talk, which came during Autism Awareness month, focused on providing evidence that brain enlargement is a characteristic of autism. He provided highlights from a study he and his colleagues published in 2005 that compared brain volume and head circumference in children with and without autism.

The UNC researchers found that head circumference appears normal at birth, but a significantly increased rate of head circumference growth appears to begin around 12 months of age. At two years of age in autistic children, the scientists also found enlargement of the gray and white matter cerebral volumes. Indirect evidence suggests that this increased rate of brain growth in autism may have its onset postnatally in the latter part of the first year of life.

"There is something happening in the brains of autistic children between 6 and 12 months," he stated. "We hope to find out what is happening so we can provide insights that will lead to earlier diagnosis of autism."

Piven also discussed the different etiologies of autism and how Tuberous Sclerosis, Fragile X Syndrome and Smith-Lemli-Opitz syndrome might provide helpful models for elucidating critical linkages among gene, brain, and cognition in children with neurodevelopmental disorders.  He also discussed some of the work his team is doing involving the monoamine oxidase A gene.

Piven concluded by saying that more longitudinal research needs to be supported so we can look at the development of children over time.

Piven and his colleagues received an Autism Center of Excellence (ACE) award from NIH in 2007 for the work they are doing to identify brain differences in children who develop ASD. In addition to his duties as a professor, Piven serves as the director of research for the TEACCH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication-handicapped Children) Division and the director of the UNC Neurodevelopmental Disorders Research Center.

(Robin Mackar is News Director in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)

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