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In a study published November 2011 in JAMA, The Journal of the American Medical Association, Courchesne reported that children with autism have 67 percent more neurons in their prefrontal cortex (PFC) than typical children. Located in the area of the brain just behind the eyes, the PFC is responsible for what psychologists call "executive functions"—high-level thinking, such as planning ahead, inhibiting impulses and directing attention.
By combining his new findings with his earlier discoveries, Courchesne has started to construct a kind of timeline of autism in the brain. Perhaps, as the brain of a future autistic child develops in the womb, something—an inherited mutation or an environmental factor like a virus, toxin or hormone—muffles the expression of genes coding for proteins that usually fix mistakes in sequences of DNA. Errors accumulate. The genetic systems controlling the growth of new neurons go haywire, and brain cells divide much more frequently than usual, accounting for the excess neurons found in the PFC of autistic children. Between birth and age five, the extra neurons in the autistic brain grow physically larger and form more connections than in a typical child's brain. Unused connections are not pruned away as they should be.