In the brains of normally developing children and kids with language difficulties, the lightbulbs on the circuits oscillate, that is, all get brighter or dimmer in the right and left hemispheres at the same time. In the kids with autism, the hemispheres are out of sync. The circuits on the left side get brighter as those on the right side get dimmer.
Specifically, researchers found communication differences in the left and right inferior frontal gyrus, which is involved with speech, and the superior temporal gyrus, which is involved in receptive language, or understanding what people say, Goldstein said.
Researchers said the findings could help in the search for methods to screen for autism even before obvious symptoms emerge.
"The idea is that our measure would be one of several measures developed over the next few years, which together would give good accuracy in identifying autism in extremely young toddlers," Dinstein said. "Having biological measures for diagnosing autism would revolutionize the field."
Goldstein said it was unlikely fMRIs would be used to diagnosis autism. Most hospitals don't have the equipment. It's expensive, time consuming, and interpreting the images requires extensive training, he said.
Even so, the study is intriguing in that it fits with genetic research that's identified more than 20 autism risk genes. "Those genes, by and large, code for proteins that make the synapses work, or the connections between neurons," Goldstein said. "These researchers are looking at the next step up, which are the circuits, or the connections between the brain regions."
It would be interesting to study whether learning and behavioral therapy can change those patterns, he added.
Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer
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