Brain Changes Linked To Mental Illness, Alzheimer’s And Autism Can Be Detected At Birth

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A new study from the University of North Carolina found that brain changes linked to disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, bipolar disorder and autism can be seen in MRI scans of newborn babies with certain gene variants.

“These results suggest that prenatal brain development may be a very important influence on psychiatric risk later in life,” said Rebecca C. Knickmeyer, lead author of the study and a professor of psychiatry at UNC.

In the study, 272 infants received brain scans shortly after birth, along with DNA testing for 10 common gene variants.

The gene variants that researchers tested for have been linked to structural changes in adult brains that portend conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, Alzheimer’s disease and autism. What’s crazy — and exciting — is that infants who tested positive for some of these gene variants also showed early evidence of these same brain changes.

What’s exciting about babies showing brain changes linked to illness? Knickmeyer said the discovery “could stimulate an exciting new line of research focused on preventing onset of illness through very early intervention in at-risk individuals.”

Newborns with the ApoE4 gene (linked to increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s) and certain variants of the DISC1 gene (linked to schizophrenia) had brains that “looked very similar” to adults with these gene variants.

But don’t let anybody tell you that a “dementia gene (was) found in newborn babies” (or an “autism gene” or a “bipolar gene” or any such thing). While the gene variants (and brain changes) studied have been linked to certain diseases and mental health issues, their presence alone doesn’t mean you’re destined to get Alzheimer’s or autism or bipolar. Having these genes may make you more susceptible to certain illnesses than people who don’t have them, but the bottom line is that these gene variants are not determinative. 

genes and disease
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