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Study Finds Excess Cross Talk In Autistic Teens’ Brains

April 24, 2014
Written by: , Filed in: Diagnostic Imaging, Neuroradiology
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Slowly, imaging is building up a picture of the autistic brain. The latest study, published online last week in JAMA Psychiatry, shows an intriguing pattern of both lesser and greater connectivity in two brain networks among adolescents with autism spectrum disorders compared to the brain networks of control subjects.

Lead author Inna Fishman, PhD, assistant research professor of psychology at San Diego State University, told HealthDay that the connections between brain areas seem to be key:

In the last seven to 10 years, people began to understand that we shouldn’t be searching for answers in any individual brain area, but looking at the brain as a collection of networks.

The study involved 25 children, ages 11 to 18, with autism spectrum disorders, and 25 controls matched for age, handedness, and nonverbal IQ.

The researchers used functional MRI to examine connectivity in two brain networks involved in social processing: the theory of mind, or “mentalizing,” system, which helps a person infer what others are thinking, and the mirror neuron system, which helps a person understand the actions of others by replicating them.

The scans showed that the autistic subjects exhibited both over- and underconnectivity in the theory of mind network, and increased connectivity—or “cross talk”—between the mirror neuron system and the theory of mind network. “We found they were overconnected,” Dr. Fishman said. “They talk to each other way more than expected at that age.”

The greater the differences in neural connectivity, the study found, the greater the child’s problems with social skills.

The study wasn’t designed to investigate whether the greater connectivity caused the social problems or vice versa. If it’s the former, Dr. Fishman said, then ways might be found to modify brain networks to make them more similar to those of children without an autism spectrum disorder.

She said her team planned further study.

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