New evidence shows that the brains of adults with autism are "wired" differently from people without the disorder, and this abnormal pattern of connectivity may be responsible for the social impairments that are characteristic of autism.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, a team of researchers affiliated with the University of Washington's Autism Center also found that the most severely socially impaired subjects in the study exhibited the most abnormal pattern of connectivity among a network of brain regions involved in face processing.
"This study shows that these brain regions are failing to work together efficiently," said Natalia Kleinhans, a research assistant professor of radiology and lead author of the paper published in the journal Brain. "Our work seems to indicate that the brain pathways of people with autism are not completely disconnected, but they are not as strong as in people without autism."
The study is the first to look at brain connectivity and social impairment, and focused on how the brain processes information about faces. Deficits in face processing are one of the earliest characteristics to emerge in people with autism.
The research team led by Elizabeth Aylward, a UW professor of radiology, examined connectivity in the limbic system, or the network of brain regions that are involved with processing social and emotional information. Participants in the study included 19 high-functioning adults with autism who had IQs of at least 85. They ranged in age from 18 to 44 and were compared with an age- and intelligence-matched sample of 21 typically developed adults. The group with autism spectrum disorder included eight individuals diagnosed with autism, nine with Asperger's syndrome and two diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified. The level of social impairment for each autistic participant was drawn from records of clinical observations and diagnoses
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University of Washington