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 In Autism, Brain

Atypical Brain Connectivity in Youth with AutismA number of studies have demonstrated that brain connectivity plays a significant role in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). New research from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) contributes to the body of evidence using advanced brain scanning techniques. The study finds that children and adolescents with ASD have a different blood flow pattern in the brain, which suggests delayed brain development in brain areas linked to social and emotional functions. The results provide insight to how brain structure differs in youth with ASD, compared to typically developing youth.

The researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to observe the brain patterns of 17 children with high-functioning ASD and 22 typically developing children, aged 7 to 17. The children with ASD and the typically developing children were matched for age, gender, and IQ. While the children rested in an MRI, the researchers tracked the blood flow in their brains, a technique that measures energy use, and monitored the strength and organization of their neural networks using a tool called arterial spin labelling perfusion. The experiment allowed them to test whether ASD is caused by connectivity problems in neural networks that comprise the “social brain.”

The MRI results demonstrated that participants with ASD have hyper-perfusion, or increased blood flow in the brain. Increased blood flow was linked to increased oxygen metabolism in frontal brain areas that are important for navigating social situations. This finding is notable because blood flow usually decreases as the brain develops. The participants with ASD also exhibited reduced long-range connectivity between the default mode network nodes (an important network for social and emotional function, and Theory of Mind abilities) compared to the typically developing participants. Diminished connectivity limits the ability of information to move between brain regions, which may explain some of autism’s social impairments.

The findings are consistent with other studies about ASD and the brain. The study could lead to understanding the underlying causes of autism.

This research is published in the journal Brain and Behavior.

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