Autism, Intervening Prenatally? A Conversation With Neurobiologist Jonathan Delafield-Butt


Jonathan Delafield-Butt is a neurobiologist and developmental psychologist at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland who thinks the current theory of evolution needs to be far more nuanced to include, in particular, how biological form and function are transmitted across generations, as well as psychological aspects like feelings. One of Delafield-Butt‘s interests is “development of children’s agency and its origins evident in intentional movements before birth.”

Jonathan Delafield-Butt is a Lecturer in Early Years at Strathclyde. His BSc (with honors) is in medical chemistry from the University of Leeds, his MSc in neuroscience and PhD in developmental neurobiology are both from the University of Edinburgh. We spoke recently by phone about the causes of autism and the possibilities for intervening prenatally. Excerpts of our conversation follow.

Suzan Mazur: You co-authored an excellent paper called “Autism as a developmental disorder in intentional movement and affective engagement.” You’ve noted that the abnormalities have been found in brain stem systems and the cerebellum in the early fetal stage — before the cerebral neocortex is functional. How many weeks would you say that is?

Jonathan Delafield-Butt: To pinpoint it is difficult because we can only see the results of the developmental process at birth or in childhood, when in very rare cases you get early child death. If we have the histology, that can give very fine neural sections. You can look at the aberrations and differences. But all the data certainly seems to point to the fetal stages and possibly embryogenesis — possibly. It’s speculative. We don’t know.

Suzan Mazur: You describe brilliantly how the fetus is actively moving around in the uterus, feeling itself and its environment, tasting, drinking amniotic fluid, etc., showing emotion. Is the motor disorder noticeable in this fetal stage?

Jonathan Delafield-Butt: It ought to be —> Read More