Social Struggles in Autism Linked to Decreased Brain Activation

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Brain imaging has uncovered evidence that disruptions in brain connectivity interfering with the “theory of mind” may be responsible for why children with autism have trouble in social situations, according to research published in Molecular Autism.

One reason scientists believe that those with autism have trouble in social situations is because of an inability to effectively infer other’s thoughts and feelings through “theory of mind” (ToM), the ability to understand mental states of others and oneself.

Marcel Just, PhD, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Penn.,  and colleagues conducted brain scans of 13 high-functioning children with autism between the ages of 10-16 and 13 children without autism while the children watched animations developed by Fulvia Castelli, PhD, and her colleagues in the UK.

The animations showed shapes such as a large red triangle and a small blue triangle moving in ways that could be construed as interactions such as coaxing or dancing. The children were asked to identify the thoughts and feelings of the triangles while having their brains scanned by a functional MRI scanner.

Children with autism showed significantly reduced activation compared with the control children in the medial frontal cortex and temporo-parietal junction, brain regions considered part of the ToM network. The synchronization between these regions was also lower in the children with autism.

"One reason this finding is so interesting is that the 'actors' in the films have no faces, facial expressions, or body posture on which to base a judgment of an emotion or attitude," said Rajesh Kana, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "The neurotypical children managed to identify a social interaction without social cues, such as interpreting the large triangle nudging the smaller one as a parent's attempt to encourage a child, but the ASD children were unable to make the connection."

Dr. Just noted that by studying children, they have shown it is possible to characterize altered brain circuitry early in development, which could lead to earlier intervention programs to train children to infer thoughts and intentions that underlie physical interactions between people.

Social Struggles in Autism Linked to Decreased Brain Activation
Those with autism have trouble in social situations because of an inability to effectively infer other’s thoughts and feelings.

The holidays can be difficult for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), particularly because of new or different social situations. One reason scientists believe ASD causes impairment in social interactions is due to an inability to effectively infer other's thoughts and feelings through "theory of mind," or ToM -- the ability to understand the mental states of others and oneself.

An innovative brain imaging study has uncovered new evidence explaining why ToM deficiencies are present in ASD children. Published in Molecular Autism, the research reveals disruptions in the brain's circuitry involved in ToM at multiple levels compared to typical brain functioning. The findings provide valuable insight into understanding the functional makeup of a vital neural network that is critical for characterizing the social symptoms in individuals with ASD.

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