Saturday, August 05, 2006

Researchers Gain Insight Into Why Brain Areas Fail to Work Together in Autism

Brief Description:
Two studies have indicated that autism may involve a lack of connections and coordination in separate areas of the brain .

Thornton: Two studies have indicated that autism may involve a lack of connections and coordination in separate areas of the brain. The research was conducted by the Collaborative Program of Excellence in Autism, a research network funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. In people with autism, the brain areas that perform complex analysis appear less likely to work together during problem solving than in people who do not have the disorder, the researchers suggest. In a separate report, the same research team found that, in people with autism, brain areas normally associated with visual tasks also appear to be active during language-related tasks, providing evidence to explain a bias towards visual thinking common in autism. Researchers also found that communications between high-order centers in the brains of people with autism are directly related to the thickness of the anatomical connections between them. The study and theory are the work of Dr. Marcel Just, Director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at the University of Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He talked about the new discoveries.

Just: Well some of the most exciting new findings are in studies of brain activation. So asking people with autism and typical controls to perform some tasks and looking at the brain activity while there're performing the task. One kind of new finding is that the brain areas that become activated are less synchronized in autism and particularly it's the areas at the front of the brain, the frontal cortex that are less synchronized with areas further back in autism. So just the straight synchronization of the brain activity is lower in autism particularly involving frontal areas. Another new finding is that the white matter the actual cables that would carry the connections are different. And the third and I think this is short of one of the most exciting things we just found is that there's a correlation between these two results in individuals. People who have lower synchronization between frontal and parietal areas also have a smaller corpus callosum which is the white matter gigantic fiber bundle that connects the left and the right hemisphere of the brain.
Thornton: People with autism often have difficulty communicating and interacting socially with people. The saying "unable to see the forest for the trees" describes how people with autism frequently excel at details, yet struggle to comprehend the larger picture. Dr. Just and his colleagues are conducting additional studies to determine the nature of the abnormality of the connections in the brains of people with autism. For more information, visit From the National Institutes of Health, I'm Matt Thornton in Bethesda Maryland.


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