WEDNESDAY, June 22 (HealthDay News) -- Researchers searching for an early indicator of autism say they've discovered a promising possibility: an impairment in the ability of the brain's right and left hemispheres to communicate with each other.
In the study, researchers did brain imaging scans (fMRIs) on 29 sleeping toddlers with autism, 30 typically developing kids and 13 children with significant language delays, but not autism. All were between 1 and 4 years old.
The scans showed that the language areas of the left and right hemispheres of the autistic toddlers' brains were less "in sync" than the hemispheres of the typical kids and the children with other language delays.
The weaker the synchronization, the more severe the autistic child's communication difficulties.
"No one really knows why synchronization is important, but it's clearly a robust phenomenon apparent in the brains of animals and humans of all ages," said lead study author Ilan Dinstein, a neurobiologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, and a member of the Autism Center of Excellence at the University of California, San Diego.
"The main theory is that it is important for the proper communication between different brain areas," Dinstein added. "Such communication is thought to be essential for normal brain function and for normal behavior."
The study is published in the June 23 issue of the journal Neuron.
Neural synchronization refers to the coordinated timing of neural activity across distinct brain areas, Dinstein explained. In a normal brain, neurons in separate areas belonging to a system with a particular function, such as vision or language, always stay in sync, even during sleep.
"The brain is always active, even when you're sleeping. So you can assess synchronization both during wake and sleep," Dinstein said.
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