The “social” part of the brain in autistic children is underdeveloped and insufficiently networked, according to findings published in the journal Brain and Behavior.
To test whether high-functioning autism spectrum disorder (ASD) might be linked to either an increase or decrease in connectivity in the “social brain,” researchers studied 17 children and young adults with ASD and compared them with 22 normally developing youths. They used imaging technology to track blood flow to measure the brain’s energy use, and examined intrinsic neural networks to measure the strength of its connections.
This was the first time an MRI tool known as arterial spin labeling perfusion was used to study ASD. This technique, which uses magnetically labeled blood water as a tracer to measure blood flow in the brain, has already been used to discover novel insights and alternative treatments in schizophrenia.
The researchers found that in children with ASD, there was widespread increased blood flow, called hyper-perfusion, in frontal brain regions that are important in understanding and managing social interactions. In normally developing brains, blood flow is generally reduced, suggesting that neurodevelopment associated with socio-emotional cognition in children with ASD is delayed.
They also found that compared with normally developing children, children with ASD had reduced long-range connectivity between distant parts of the brain, meaning that information cannot flow as it should. This may explain their difficulties in social responsiveness.
“The architecture of the brain follows a cost efficient wiring pattern that maximizes functionality with minimal energy consumption,” wrote Kay Jann, PhD, of the Department of Neurology at the University of California, Los Angeles. “This is not what we found in our ASD participants.”
In the future, understanding the biological mechanisms behind these social patterns may lead to improvements in diagnosis and treatment.
A new imaging study shows that the social part of the brain is both underdeveloped and insufficiently networked in youths with high functioning autism spectrum disorder (ASD) compared to their peers without ASD.
The study, conducted by scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), provides insight into how the brains of children and adolescents with ASD might be organized differently than youths without the disorder.
“The brain controls most of our behavior and changes in how brain areas work and communicate with each other can alter this behavior and lead to impairments associated with mental disorders,” said study first author Dr. Kay Jann, a postdoctoral researcher in the UCLA Department of Neurology.