Boy with autism
A boy with autism. Photo by Scott Vaughan via Wikimedia Commons

An international team of medical researchers, co-led by the UC San Diego School of Medicine, Monday announced the discovery of a link between gene expression in certain blood cells and language development in toddlers with autism.

The link was previously unknown, according to the researchers, and occurs in leukocyte blood cells, more commonly known as white blood cells.

Researchers collected blood samples and MRI data from a group of 118 toddlers with an average age of 29 months. Toddlers in the study with autism spectrum disorder and poor language development had vastly different neural responses to speech than toddlers with autism and good language skills and development.

The University of Cyprus co-led the study — which was published online Monday in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

“Many of the genes involved are known from other work to be involved in prenatal brain development are human-specific, are linked to vocal learning, and importantly, have been directly implicated in ASD by other genetic and postmortem studies,” said Dr. Michael Lombardo, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Cyprus and the study’s first author. “The findings show that different molecular biological mechanisms underpin functional brain development in a subtype of ASD toddlers with poor language outcome, and this biology is present before such outcomes are known.”

The findings could lead to novel ways of identifying and monitoring molecular mechanisms and activity in autism spectrum disorder patients, the researchers said. According to Dr. Eric Courchesne, a UCSD neuroscience professor and the study’s co-senior author, doctors and medical researchers could also use the study’s methodology to monitor a patient’s biological reaction to changes in treatment at molecular and neural systems levels.

“We need to better understand the biological underpinnings of different early language development in autism because early language ability is one of the most important predictors of early intervention response and later-life outcomes,” Courchesne said. “If we can understand that biology, this may have high impact in future work examining how to best facilitate change to the biology that can then substantially improve longer term outcomes for patients.”

Going forward, the research team plans to continue research monitoring neural and molecular responses in patients with autism spectrum disorder subtypes, such as Asperger syndrome. The researchers hope to use the just- completed study and future studies to better predict language development at earlier ages for children with autism spectrum disorder.

— City News Service