While science has yet to determine exactly what causes autism, a spectrum of developmental disorders affecting one in 68 children in the United States, some parents are taking a bold step to help researchers better understand the condition. Through a national program called Autism BrainNet, they're donating their children's brains to science after they die.
Carol Koch signed up her son Andrew, an 18-year-old living with autism, for the program. "Between [age] 1 and 1 and a half, it kind of became clear," she told CBS News. "He wasn't doing the interactive play other children did."
Researchers say that although there is substantial evidence that the brain of a child with autism undergoes an abnormal process of development, little is known about the underlying cellular, molecular, and genetic causes that underlie the disorder. Autism symptoms can range from difficulty with social interactions to the inability to speak.
Examining the brain tissue of individuals with autism spectrum disorder will allow researchers "to study the disease in a way that is currently not possible, and with that new information to open up new avenues for potential treatments," Dr. Patrick Hof of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai told CBS News. The more scientists know about the disorder, the more it could help them develop preventive techniques or perhaps even a cure.
The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai is one of four institutions around the country that will collect and store brain tissue of people with autism. That tissue will then be supplied to scientists conducting autism research.
For her part, Koch is hopeful that the program will one day provide answers. She now speaks about the program to other families, hoping their donations to research will bring scientists closer to a cure. "This could really make a difference for future generations," she said.