June 16, 2024
Brain Development

Unraveling the Sex-Specific Differences in Brain Development Between Autistic Boys and Girls: A UC Davis Study

A groundbreaking study led by researchers at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) has revealed significant disparities in brain development between autistic boys and girls, aged 2–13. The research, published in the prestigious journal Molecular Psychiatry, sheds light on sex-specific alterations in the cortex, the outer layer of the brain.

The study’s importance lies in the fact that only a few investigations have focused on cortical development in autistic girls, who are diagnosed with autism less frequently than boys. Approximately four boys are diagnosed with autism for every girl.

Christine Wu Nordahl, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and the UC Davis MIND Institute, and a senior author on the paper, emphasized that the sex disparity in autism diagnoses is not solely due to underdiagnosis. This study suggests that biological differences also play a role.

The cortex, the brain’s outer layer, is composed of distinct layers containing millions of neurons. These neurons fire in unison, enabling us to think, learn, solve problems, create memories, and experience emotions. The cortex undergoes rapid thickening due to the creation of new neurons until approximately age 2. After this brain developmental peak, the outer cortical layer begins to thin. Previous research has shown that the thinning process in autistic children differs from that of non-autistic children. However, whether autistic boys and girls exhibit the same differences in this process was yet to be determined.

Derek Andrews, the lead author on the study and an assistant project scientist in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and at the MIND Institute, highlighted the significance of understanding how sex differences in brain development intersect with autistic development and contribute to distinct developmental outcomes in boys and girls.

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