Social Brain Maturation Differs in Newborns Vulnerable to Autism Spectrum Disorders

A baby just born at the hospital rests in a hospital bassinet crib, wrapped in a swaddle and wearing a beanie hat.
In neonates, having a first-degree relative with autism spectrum disorder was associated with higher levels of dysmaturation of interconnected regions that process higher-order social information.

Having a first-degree relative with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) was associated with dysmaturation of social brain circuits in newborn infants, according to study data published in JAMA Network Open.

Investigators abstracted data from the European Autism Interventions Brain Imaging in Babies study, for which full-term neonates (>37 weeks) underwent magnetic resonance imaging with a dedicated neonatal brain imaging system. Imaging was performed between June 23, 2015, and August 1, 2018, at St Thomas Hospital in London, England. Neonates with (R+) and without (R) a first-degree relative with ASD were selected for inclusion. Brain regions responsible for social function were selected for analysis; the level of synchronous activity within each region was used as a metric of local functional connectivity.

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The final cohort comprised 18 R+ infants (13 boys; median [range] postmenstrual age at scan, 42.93 [40.00-44.86] weeks) and 18 R infants (13 boys; median [range] postmenstrual age at scan, 42.50 [39.29-44.58] weeks). Neonates who were R+ had significantly higher levels of synchronous activity in the right posterior fusiform and left parietal cortices (both P =.04) compared with their R counterparts. Significant group×age interactions were identified in the left insula (P =.04), right and left anterior cingulate (both P =.03), and right and left posterior cingulate cortices (both P =.03). Specifically, R+ infants displayed greater synchronous activity in these regions compared with R infants at a younger postmenstrual age, whereas those scanned when older showed the opposite. Among R neonates, a clear maturational pattern of increasing synchronous activity was observed over the course of 39 to 45 weeks’ postmenstrual age compared with a slight decrease in R+ infants.

Researchers suggested that the study be replicated with a larger data set and longitudinal design. They also acknowledged the “novelty” of the study’s inclusion of a parent with ASD as a risk for ASD in the offspring.

Newborns with vulnerability to ASD experienced significant differences in synchronous activity levels and maturation within core components of the social brain, suggesting that ASD-related deviation in typical brain maturation may occur in utero.

“Future fetal and neonatal imaging studies will help map the development of the social brain and could usefully examine what…might modify activity in the typical infant or even what might normalize aberrant activity in children who are vulnerable to adverse outcomes,” researchers concluded.


Ciarrusta J, O’Muircheartaigh J, Dimitrova R, et al. Social brain functional maturation in newborn infants with and without a family history of autism spectrum disorder. JAMA Netw Open. 2019;2(4):e191868