A Stanford brain-imaging study has just shown that the brains of children with autism are less able to switch from rest to taking on a new task than the brains of typically developing children.
According to the study, which appears this week in the scientific journal Cerebral Cortex, instead of changing to accommodate a job, connectivity in key brain networks of autistic children looks similar to connectivity in the resting brain. The degree of inflexibility was linked to the intensity of children’s autism symptoms: those with less flexibility had more severe restrictive and repetitive behaviors, one of the hallmarks of the developmental disorder.
From our press release on the research:
“We wanted to test the idea that a flexible brain is necessary for flexible behaviors,” said Lucina Uddin, PhD, a lead author of the study. “What we found was that across a set of brain connections known to be important for switching between different tasks, children with autism showed reduced ‘brain flexibility’ compared with typically developing peers.” Uddin, who is now an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Miami, was a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford when the research was conducted.
“The fact that we can tie this neurophysiological brain-state inflexibility to behavioral inflexibility is an important finding because it gives us clues about what kinds of processes go awry in autism,” said Vinod Menon, PhD, the Rachel L. and Walter F. Nichols, MD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford and the senior author of the study.
The study is the first to examine unusual patterns of connectivity in the brains of children with autism while they are performing tasks; Menon’s team has previously published research on connectivity between different regions of the autistic brain at rest. Some regions of the autistic brain are over-connected to each other, that work has shown, and the degree of over-connection is linked to children’s social deficits, perhaps in part because it interferes with their ability to derive pleasure from human voices. Menon’s lab has also explored how differences in the organization of the autistic brain may contribute to better math performance in some people with autism.
“We’re making progress in identifying a brain basis of autism, and we’re starting to get traction in pinpointing systems and signaling mechanisms that are not functioning properly,” Menon told me. “This is giving us a better handle both in thinking about treatment and in looking at change or plasticity in the brain.”
Previously: Greater hyperconnectivity in the autistic brain contributes to greater social deficits, Unusual brain organization found in autistic kids who best peers at math and Stanford study reveals why human voices are less rewarding for kids with autism