Good health and illness are both part and parcel of our life. We all fall prey to numerous illnesses during the course of our lifetime, many of which are easily conquerable while others are bothersome as complete recovery is slow and some stay on with us as a life-long burden. Afflictions of the brain that raise their ugly head right from the early childhood indeed pose a very tough challenge for both the young victim who is oblivious of the impact of that brain deficiency on daily life and the parents, for whom managing the everyday needs of their affected child is exceedingly distressing and painful.
Various childhood afflictions of the human brain like autism, cerebral palsy, dyslexia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) among others affect hundreds of thousands of children worldwide. Let us understand the striking symptoms, probable causes, diagnosis and management of some of the commonly occurring brain anomalies affecting children.
This neuro-development disorder first appears during early childhood as the symptoms of lack of response to social stimuli become markedly visible. There are impairments in social interaction and communication as most autistic children do not develop proper natural speech. The victim has restricted interests like playing a single game and suffers from frequent loneliness and shows repetitive behaviour such as hand flapping, head rolling or body rocking. They may show compulsive behavior like arranging objects in stacks or lines. Studies have shown that such children may indulge in actions like hand biting or eye poking that may cause self injury.
Parents of children with autism normally notice their child’s unusual behaviour when the child is between two and three years of age, which is characterized by no babbling and gesturing by the child by 12 months no utterance of single words by 16 months and no two-word phrases at two years of age. For diagnosing autism, the available diagnostic instruments include a semi-structured parent interview, and secondly, observation and interaction with the child evaluating the cognitive, communication and other factors.
Brain imaging studies have shown that connectivity in brain circuits that support social behaviour are reduced in autism. As a result, victims of this disorder invariably show difficulties with communication and social interactions. Further, studies need to be done on searching the genes that shape the development of these circuits and how they become disrupted in this disorder.
Scientists have shown that the greatest decrease in neural connectivity occurs between a cluster of neurons involved in the emotional aspects of social behaviour that is a part of the limbic brain. Parts of the brain that mediate emotional component of our social interactions. Which make us understand the social rules about how other people behave and act, are present in the limbic region. Neural connectivity is similarly affected in the brain region involved in language and communication and that play a role between visual perception and movement.
Now what makes the brain to err? It is well known that autism has a strong genetic basis although environment also plays a significant role in its development. A large number of autistic individuals with unaffected family members have shown spontaneous alternations in their genetic material—Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid (DNA) due to deletions or duplication of small stretches of this blueprint of life.
Research studies have pointed to the occurrence of synaptic dysfunctions in autism. It is at the synaptic junctions that one neuron meets the other and connects with it through the passage of neurotransmitters—the chemical signals that allow communication channels between two neurons, which defines neural connectivity in brain circuits. The most important environmental factor that is believed to contribute to autism is ‘prenatal stress’ caused primarily due to intake of alcohol and smoking by mother during pregnancy, exposure of the mother to certain drugs mainly anti-depressants, nutritional deficiencies in early pregnancy, advanced age of either parent, exposure of the mother to chemical pollutants and infectious agents and complications at or shortly after birth.
Basically, autism affects the amygdale, cerebellum and many other parts of the brain. Scientists believe that this brain anomaly takes root soon after conception and from there starts a cascade of events in the brain that are influenced by environmental factors. Although the brains of most autistic children tend to grow faster than usual after birth, there is slower growth in childhood. Several cellular and molecular factors are attributed for this abnormal early overgrowth. As interactions between the body’s defence machinery and the nervous system also begin during early embryonic life, any abnormal immune activity during this period of growth could affect brain development.