A study from researchers at the University of California, San Diego, has shed new light on the possible origins of autism, lending credence to the theory that the disease actually starts in the womb.

The study looked at the brains of children with autism who died at a young age.  Some died from drowning or other accidents, some from asthma, and some from heart problems.  In all cases, the children's brains were donated to science after death.

The study was small - looking at the brains of only 22 children -- 11 with autism and 11 without.  But researchers found that ten of the 11 children who were diagnosed with autism, had clusters of disorganized brain cells in areas of the brain that are important for regulating social functioning, emotions and communication -- all areas with which children with autism have difficulties.

"They are actually jam-packed with brain cells," lead researcher Eric Courchesne told NBC News. Not only are there too many cells, but they are not developed properly. "Brain cells are there but they haven’t changed into the kind of cell they are supposed to be. It's a failure of early formation."

The authors said the clusters are likely defects that occurred during the latter stages of pregnancy.

It's also interesting to note that the 11 children with autism in the study had a broad range of symptoms.  Some had speech impediments, and one could not speak at all.  At least one of the children had severe autism.  All of this leads researchers to believe that the changes that occur with autism happen quickly and affect similar areas of the brain but to varying degrees.

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