There are two to five times many males with autism as femalesCells that prune connections between neurons in babies’ brains as they grow are thought to have a role in autism spectrum disorder. Now, a study suggests that the number and behaviour of these cells—called microglia—vary in boys and girls, a finding that could help to explain why many more boys are diagnosed with autism and related disorders.

Donna Werling, a neurogeneticist at the University of California, San Francisco, and her colleagues found that genes associated with microglia are more active in male brains than in female brains in the months before birth.

This suggests there is something fundamentally different about male and female brain development.
Donna Werling, a neurogeneticist at the University of California, San Francisco


Werling and her colleagues’ most recent work fits with other studies that suggest that changes in the autistic brain are likely to occur before birth, says Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre in Cambridge, UK. Baron-Cohen, whose work has linked high levels of fetal testosterone to autism, suggests that future studies explore how testosterone and other sex hormones may operate through microglia to shape the developing brain.

 

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