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Do the brain’s intricate folds hold clues to autism?

When mechanical engineer Ellen Kuhl, PhD, came to Stanford in 2007, she was studying the physical forces that affect how the heart functions. But some of her students began wondering how those same forces apply to the brain, particularly the way it creates those complex folds we’re used to seeing.

Kuhl told me, “A lot of people are trying to understand the biology, chemistry, and electricity of the brain, but nobody was really looking at the physical forces in the brain.”

Kuhl thought her students were on to something and got a seed grant through Stanford Bio-X to team up with Antonio Hardan, MD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences who had previously found that kids with autism have differences in the way certain regions of their brains had folded. Together, they thought if they could understand the way those folds form in the first place they might be able to improve diagnosis for autism or other disorders.

Since then, Kuhl has created computer models of the physical forces that push the outer portion of the brain to bend and flex into complex folds. The team hopes these same models can help explain what lies behind misfolded brain regions in kids with autism or other diseases.

The website PhD Comics recently created a short animation that explains Kuhl’s work and its implications for diseases like autism - see above.

Previously: New Stanford research offers hope for faster autism diagnosis, Girls with autism show behavior and brain differences compared to boys, Stanford study finds and A new insight into the brain chemistry of autism

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