Some brain changes found in adults with common gene variants linked to disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, and autism can also be seen in the brain scans of newborns, according to new research.
“These results suggest that prenatal brain development may be a very important influence on psychiatric risk later in life,” said Rebecca C. Knickmeyer, Ph.D., lead author of the study and assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.
For the study, 272 infants received MRI scans shortly after birth. The DNA of each was tested for 10 common variations in seven genes that have been linked to brain structure in adults.
For some polymorphisms, such as a variation in the APOE gene associated with Alzheimer’s disease, the brain changes in infants looked very similar to brain changes found in adults with the same variants, according to Knickmeyer.
“This could stimulate an exciting new line of research focused on preventing onset of illness through very early intervention in at-risk individuals,” she said.
But this was not true for every polymorphism included in the study, noted John H. Gilmore, M.D., senior author of the study and vice chair for research and scientific affairs in the UNC Department of Psychiatry.
For example, the study included two variants in the DISC1 gene. For one of these, known as rs821616, the infant brains looked very similar to the brains of adults. But there was no similarity between infant brains and adult brains for the other variant, rs6675281.
“This suggests that the brain changes associated with this gene variant aren’t present at birth, but develop later in life, perhaps during puberty,” Gilmore said.
The study is published by the journal Cerebral Cortex.