Link found between sleep problems and infant brain development by UW researchers

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Link found between sleep problems and infant brain development by UW researchers

While people tend to get less of it as they grow older, sleep is an essential aspect of development in the first few years of life. A recent study by the UW Autism Center found a connection between sleep and brain development for infants with a family history of autism. This specific study is a smaller part of a larger neuroimaging project called the Infant Brain Imaging Study (IBIS) which seeks to identify early brain change in infants who later develop autism [CQ: Interview].

According to Kate MacDuffie, a postdoctoral fellow and author of the study, children with autism are about two to three times more likely to have sleep problems than a child with typical development.

While sleep has been studied before in children diagnosed with autism, this study marks the first time it has been observed in infants as young as 6-months-old with a higher risk of autism, meaning they have a family history. 

Dr. Annette Estes, director of the UW Autism Center and author of the study, explained the motivation to focus on sleep. 

“We started thinking about the fact that sleep is so important to learning, brain development, physical health, immune system function, and all sorts of things, that we started feeling like this should become more of an intervention goal,” Estes said.

Given that sleep is so important in the early years of life, there was an interest in seeing if sleep problems could affect intervention techniques for children with autism. As children get older, repetitive and restrictive behaviors are observed as a core symptom of autism, but interventions on these behaviors may not be as productive due to sleep problems from as young as infancy.

“We all know that on days when we don't get enough sleep, we’re a little slower, a little more irritable, we’re not as able to learn things from our environment,” MacDuffie said. “And the same is true for these kids, so if we really want to maximize how much they can learn from these early interventions, it's very important to address the sleep problems that could be interfering with their learning.”

To look at these sleep problems, the study specifically targets a part of the brain called the hippocampus.

“The hippocampus is a structure that is critical for memory and spatial navigation,” MacDuffie said. “We don't know as much about how memory operates in infants as young as 6 months, but we do know this is a part of the brain that is really involved in our learning new experiences.”

The study determined an association between sleep-onset difficulties and larger hippocampi in the infants studied. While there was not a huge difference, it was found that infants who later went on to develop autism had slightly more trouble falling asleep than the infants who did not develop autism. A pattern of enlarged hippocampal volume was then also found in infants who had sleep problems and went on to develop autism. Putting this all together, it was concluded that there was an association between these infants who experienced sleep problems and a larger hippocampus later developing autism.

An important warning both MacDuffie and Estes made is that the results of this study should not lead to conclusions by parents that poor sleep is a warning sign of autism. 

“We’re not at that point in the research where this is something that could be interpreted in that way, because all babies are really hard with sleep,” Estes said.

The research done is not enough to conclude that parents of infants who have difficulty sleeping should be worried about facing an autism diagnosis; sleep patterns change rapidly in infants as they grow and many experience sleep problems.

Furthermore, only sleep-onset problems were observed in this study. Other aspects of sleep such as length, frequency of interruption during sleep, or quality of sleep were not looked at. There is still more research to be done before the results can be applied on an individual basis. 

“It's not scientifically in a place where it can be used as an indicator,” Estes said. “More research — different kinds of research — is needed before people can take that information and apply it to themselves.” 

Reach contributing writer Katie Wilton at science@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @katiegwilton

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