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Thursday, February 4, 2016

How Autism Changes the Brain: Scans of Patients Reveal Subtle Differences in Regions Involved in Language and Facial Recognition

From the Daily Mail (U.K.)

By Richard Gray
January 29, 2016
  • Scientists scanned the brains of 61 men with autism spectrum disorder.
  • They compared these to the white matter of men without the condition.
  • Those suffering from the disorder had differences in the frontal lobe.
  • Specific nerve bundles involved in language and facial processing were affected.

Men with autism have subtle differences in the connections within their brains and the findings could help determine why people with the disorder exhibit the symptoms that they do.

Scientists used brain scanning techniques to examine the white matter in the brains of adult males suffering from autism spectrum disorder (ASD) - a condition that affects around one in 100 people.

They found the bundles of nerves in an area of the brain called the frontal lobe, which is involved in social interaction skills, look different from those without the disorder.

Researchers used MRI scans to study the brains of adults with autism
spectrum disorder and found they have significant differences in the white
matter in key regions of the brain involved in language and facial recognition.
Red regions in the scans above highlight areas where the differences were found.

Specifically the researchers found the connections between nerve cells in an area on the left side of the brain, called the arcuate bundle and responsible for language, were altered compared to healthy adults.

These differences were particularly severe in those who experienced 'delayed echolalia' as part of their autism, where they often repeat words or sentences in a parrot-like way.

Dr. Marco Catani, a neuroscientist at King's College London, said the findings could provide new insights into the causes of the condition and how it develops as children mature.

'White matter provides key insights which allow us to paint a precise picture of how different parts of the brain develop during critical periods in childhood,' he said.

'We found subtle brain differences in men who at a very young age had severe problems with communication and social interaction.

'The differences appear to remain even if they have somehow learned to cope with these difficulties in adult life.'

The researchers used Magnetic Resonance Imaging technique called Diffusion Tensor Imaging, to compare networks of white matter in 61 adults with autism spectrum disorder and 61 people without.

White matter plays a crucial role in helping to connect different regions of the brain and allowing them to communicate with each other.

The scans also revealed people with autism spectrum disorder had underdeveloped areas of white matter in another part of the brain called the left uncinated bundle.

This plays a significant role in face recognition and emotional processing.

The experts found people with this underdevelopment had suffered problems with facial expressions in childhood.

Dr. Catani said, however, further research on women and children with autism could help to reveal further insights into how the changes in the brain develop.

At present it is unclear whether the changes are a result of the problems experienced by the men during adulthood as a result of autism, or if they are the root course of these problems.

But Dr. Catani said the study could eventually lead to new ways of diagnosing and treating people with autism.

He added: 'It is worth noting that the brain differences are visible only with the special research techniques we now have at our disposal.

'These differences are very subtle and potentially reversible.

'Thanks to neuroimaging studies like this, it may one day be possible to stimulate the development of these faulty brain connections, or to predict how people with autism respond to treatment.'

'Our study did not include women and children, so it would be interesting to explore whether similar differences exist within these groups.

For example, research has shown that women appear more resilient than men when it comes to autism, so it will be important if this is explained biologically in their brain development.'

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