Brain changes in autism are far more sweeping than previously known, according to a new study that could help explain the puzzling range of symptoms in the disorder.
The study, published Thursday in the journal Neuron, found that people with autism have changes in many more brain regions than previously thought. The findings could help explain why people with autism can have such varied symptoms, from difficulty with social interaction to repetitive behaviors.
“These results really bring home how widespread the brain changes are in autism,” said co-lead author David Amaral, director of research at the University of California, Davis MIND Institute.
The findings also suggest that the brain changes in autism may begin early in development. The researchers found that the brains of people with autism had changes in both gray matter, which contains the brains’ cell bodies, and white matter, which contains the brains’ nerve fibers.
Previous studies had found changes in gray matter in autism, but the new study is the first to find changes in white matter as well. The researchers said the findings suggest that the brain changes in autism are not simply a result of neuron loss, but may be due to changes in how the neurons are connected.
The findings support the idea that autism is a “connectivity disorder,” said Amaral.
The new study is the largest of its kind to look at brain changes in autism. The researchers used a brain-imaging technique called diffusion tensor imaging to examine the brains of 95 people with autism and 95 people without the disorder.
The researchers found that people with autism had changes in brain regions that are involved in social interaction, communication, and repetitive behaviors. The findings suggest that the brain changes in autism may underlie the range of symptoms seen in the disorder.
The study provides “further evidence that the social deficits and repetitive behaviors associated with ASD [autism spectrum disorder] are rooted in changes to the brain’s white matter,” said co-lead author Vinod Menon, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University.
The findings could help researchers develop new treatments for autism, said Amaral.
“If we can understand the brain changes underlying the symptoms of ASD, we can develop targeted treatments that might improve the lives of individuals with this condition,” he said.
A new study has found that brain changes in autism are far more sweeping than previously known.
The research, published in the journal Nature, used brain imaging to examine the brains of people with autism and found that they had markedly different patterns of brain activity compared to people without autism.
Specifically, the study found that people with autism had reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex and increased activity in the posterior cingulate cortex.
Previous research has suggested that the prefrontal cortex is involved in social cognition and the posterior cingulate cortex is involved in self-referential processing.
The new study’s findings suggest that the brain changes in autism are much more widespread than previously thought and that they may underpin the social and cognitive deficits seen in this condition.
The findings also have implications for the diagnosis and treatment of autism, as they suggest that current approaches may be too narrow in focus.