Archived | Autism Speaks: Brain Development Initiative | Circa 2007 #NotAnAutisticAlly

Portfolio: Autism Biology

The biology of autism is the focus of one of four primary portfolios in the Autism Speaks Sciences Program. The Biology Portfolio will focus on the areas of neuroscience, physiology and molecular biology to gain a better understanding of the pathology and underlying biological mechanisms that generate autism. For its work on the biology of autism, Autism Speaks develops and manages research grants in the areas of neurosciences, physiology and molecular biology. Initiatives in this area currently include the Brain Development Initiative.

Brain Development Initiative

We must understand how, when, and why the brains of individuals with autism are thrown off track during development. The creation of effective biologically-based treatments for autism will require knowledge of the underlying brain defects. Identifying what goes awry in the developing brain of children with autism is the first step.

The search for the brain basis of autism started out as a hunt for a particular place in the brain where the problem could be located. Though the limbic system, cerebellum and other structures showed abnormalities in some studies, these findings were not always consistent or explanatory. Rather than any one structure being affected, researchers now think that the defect may lie within the neural circuitry, the way the brain is wired together. One critical link between brain circuitry may be the increasingly replicated finding of larger brain size in autism and increased white matter volume.

White Matter and Brain Development

Lead by Martha Herbert, M.D., Ph.D., of Massachusetts General Hospital, The Brain Development Initiative takes its impetus from a confluence of recent findings on abnormal brain development in autism.

Although it’s become well known that children with autism can have abnormally larger brains in early childhood, it’s still unclear just what this observation may be telling us. In order to gather more specific information on these problems, Dr. Herbert has spent the past several years measuring MRI scans of people with autism. Her work began with a Young Investigator grant from Cure Autism Now and culminated in 2004 with a Brain Development Initiative Innovator Award to enable Dr. Herbert’s continued pursuit of an understanding for the basis of brain enlargement in autism.

Her recently published findings show that most of the brain overgrowth can be accounted for by volume increases in the later-developing parts of white matter, especially those in the frontal lobes. If we can understand what it is that sets volume increases off, we may have the information necessary to intervene at an early enough stage to prevent this circuitry change.

(For a summary of Dr. Herbert’s work from the Cure Autism Now archives, read the CAN Science Summary: The White Matter Story

Even though abnormal white matter may not end up being a direct cause of autism, it gives scientists an entry point to autism’s complex web of inter-related abnormalities. By studying the possible causes and consequences of white matter changes, this initiative continues Cure Autism Now’s focus on bridging research disciplines – brain structure, function, chemistry, and genetics—to fund innovative work that approaches autism in ways not previously contemplated.

Cure Autism Now’s White Matter Think Tank held in February 2005, brought together scientists from different backgrounds and disciplines for the specific of goal of working towards a synthesis of ideas. In doing so, The Brain Development Initiative continues Cure Autism Now’s tradition of focusing on promising but undeveloped scientific questions.


As a direct result of our Brain Development Initiative and feedback from scientists at the 2005 White Matter Think Tank, in 2006 CAN formed a collaborative neuropathology workgroup to look more directly at how the brains of individuals with autism develop.

Structural and functional imaging studies have consistently found particular brain regions to be atypical in individuals with autism. However, while such experiments are essential in identifying potentially abnormal brain regions, including changes in white matter, they cannot reveal the precise nature of the cellular and molecular defects that are causing those abnormalities.

The only way to discover the underlying brain defects is to conduct studies directly on the brain tissue. Neuropathological experiments are the most direct path to providing answers to the myriad of questions surrounding the brain causes of autistic behavior. Yet, neuropathology remains one of the most under-funded areas of autism research. Coordinated, large-scale tissue analyses must absolutely be undertaken to determine what generates the anatomical and functional abnormalities witnessed in autism.

The Neuropathology Workgroup is a collaborative effort organized by Cure Autism Now that combines unbiased stereology with modern molecular neuropathology to directly examine the frontal lobes of individuals with autism. The goal is to finally reveal what accounts for the structural and functional abnormalities, including the brain enlargement and white matter volume increases that have been observed by so many previous brain imaging studies. The workgroup represents a partnership across multiple institutes/organizations, bringing together researchers with different expertise, many of whom have never worked together before.

Among the several principle investigators in this new effort are Eric Courchesne, Ph.D. and Katerina Semendeferi, Ph.D. (Universityof California, San Diego), Carlos Pardo, M.D. (Johns Hopkins University), Karoly Mirnics, M.D. (University of Pittsburgh), and Dan Buxhoevden, Ph.D. (University of South Carolina).

Using the largest group of brains yet assembled for postmortem analysis, the workgroup will be cohesively characterizing several parameters, including neuron numbers and the presence of abnormalities in laminar patterns, minicolumns, neuroinflammatory cells, and axonal characteristics.

In order to carry this out, the effort also includes important collaborations with the Autism Tissue Program and the New York Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities on Staten Island.

The Neuropathology Workgroup is being co-funded by Autism Speaks. CAN is especially grateful to Mr. Peter Emch for his extremely generous donation toward this project.

Grant Abstract:

Collaborative Neuropathology Workgroup: A Comprehensive Multilevel Analysis of Frontal Lobe Microstructure in Autism (Brain Development Initiative Award)

Eric Courchesne, Ph.D., University of California, San Diego; Carlos Pardo, M.D., Johns Hopkins University; Katerina Semendeferi, Ph.D., University of California, San Diego; Karoly Mirnics, M.D., University of Pittsburgh; and Dan Buxhoevden, Ph.D., University of South Carolina

To solve the mystery of what causes autistic behavior and to develop biologically-based treatments, it is necessary to discover the underlying neural defects. As a first step, brain imaging studies have begun to successfully identify which major regions of the brain have abnormal growth and function in autism.

One of these pivotal regions is the frontal lobe. It is responsible for complex social, emotional cognitive and language abilities. Now that brain imaging studies have pinpointed where to look, the next step is to discover why the frontal lobe is abnormal. To do that requires detailed examination of the microscopic building blocks -the molecules and cells – that make up the frontal lobe. New scientific methods allow an unprecedented opportunity to see these microscopic building blocks in autism by studying postmortem tissue. Such quantitative neuropathological methods are the only ones able to validate and examine in detail the nature of the neuronal, neuroglial and cytoarchitectural abnormalities in autism.

As such, they are the most direct path to providing answers to the myriad of questions surrounding the brain causes of autistic behavior. A collaborative neuropathology workgroup headed by Dr. Eric Courchesne and his colleagues Drs. Pardo, Semendeferi, Mirnics, and Buxhoevden will be the first to use such quantitative methods and markers to carefully measure and identify the molecular and cellular abnormalities in frontal lobe in autism.

Those discoveries are expected to point to the developmental events that ultimately caused defects in these fundamental building blocks of the brain. In sum, careful examination of the brains of individuals with autism will allow us to finally determine the cellular and molecular underpinnings that generate autistic behavior, knowledge that is necessary for rationally-designed treatment strategies. 

Research Partners: Mr. Peter Emch and Autism Speaks



Autism Brain Net
Simons Foundation
Spark! For Autism

Simons Simplex Collection
Interactive Autism Network (IAN)
National Council for Severe Autism (NCSA)


UC Mind Institute
Interactive Autism Network


Autism Speaks
An Autism Speaks Initiative
Interactive Autism Network (IAN)
Cure Autism Now
Autism Clinical Trials Network (ACTN)
Autism Genetic Resource Exchange (AGRE)
Autism TIssue Program (ATP)
National Alliance for Autism Research (NAAR)
Autism Treatment Network (ATN)
Autism Intervention Research Network on Physical Health (AIR-P)
Autism Care Network
Alpha Xi Delta
Parents As Partners


Autistic people have fought the inclusion of ABA in therapy for us since before Autism Speaks, and other non-Autistic-led autism organizations, started lobbying legislation to get it covered by insurances and Medicaid. 

ABA is a myth originally sold to parents that it would keep their Autistic child out of an institution. Today, parents are told that with early intervention therapy their child will either be less Autistic or no longer Autistic by elementary school, and can be mainstreamed in typical education classes. ABA is very expensive to pay out of pocket. Essentially, Autism Speaks has justified the big price tag up front will offset the overall burden on resources for an Autistic’s lifetime. The recommendation for this therapy is 40 hours a week for children and toddlers.

The original study that showed the success rate of ABA to be at 50% has never been replicated. In fact, the study of ABA by United States Department of Defense was denounced as a failure. Not just once, but multiple times. Simply stated: ABA doesn’t workIn study after repeated study: ABA (conversion therapy) doesn’t work. 

What more recent studies do show: Autistics who experienced ABA therapy are at high risk to develop PTSD and other lifelong trauma-related conditions. Historically, the autism organizations promoting ABA as a cure or solution have silenced Autistic advocates’ opposition. ABA is also known as gay conversion therapy.

The ‘cure’ for Autistics not born yet is the prevention of birth. 

The ‘cure’ is a choice to terminate a pregnancy based on ‘autism risk.’ The cure is abortion. This is the same ‘cure’ society has for Down Syndrome. 

This is eugenics 2021. Instead of killing Autistics and disabled children in gas chambers or ‘mercy killings’ like in Aktion T4, it’ll happen at the doctor’s office, quietly, one Autistic baby at a time. Different approaches yes, but still eugenics and the extinction of an entire minority group of people.

Fact: You can’t cure Autistics from being Autistic.

Fact: You can’t recover an Autistic from being Autistic.

Fact: You can groom an Autistic to mask and hide their traits. Somewhat. … however, this comes at the expense of the Autistic child, promotes Autistic Burnout (this should not be confused with typical burnout, Autistic Burnout can kill Autistics), and places the Autistic child at high risk for PTSD and other lifelong trauma-related conditions.

[Note: Autism is NOT a disease, but a neurodevelopmental difference and disability.]

Fact: Vaccines Do Not Cause Autism.

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