By Annamaria Cavaleri ‘22
A team of researchers at San Diego State University studying MRI scans of school-age children’s brains recently discovered a unique communication pattern involving the amygdala in the brains of children with autism. This pattern involved unexpected detours and exits within the travel of information from one region of the brain to the other. It was shown that in children with autism, the amygdala which is the part of the brain linked to experiencing emotions especially anger and fear, had stronger connections with some parts of the brain and weaker connections with others (1).
The researchers studied brain imaging from 55 children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), ages 7 to 17, and observed a control group with 55 typically developing children within the same age group. The researchers used an MRI that measured how brain activity changes over time and displayed the functional connectivity of the amygdala with other regions of the brain.
The MRIs for the ASD group displayed a much weaker connection between the amygdala and the occipital cortex and the absense of the strengthening of connections between the amygdala and the frontal cortex (important for cognitive functions and voluntary movement or activity). The occipital cortex is responsible for encoding facial expressions, gaze, and other facial cues (1). This strengthened connection is typically found in developing youth, and this lack of brain maturation could explain the social communication difficulties experienced by those with Autism.
These findings add to the characterization of autism in biological and not just behavioral terms. They also present a possible tool that could be used in detecting autism in children earlier on and assessing the disorder’s impact on social communications. Further studies may look into the disrupted coordination between the amygdala and other points of the brain, and the impact this has on social function of children with autism. Overall, understanding the biological characterization of Autism brings us closer to improving clinical diagnosis of the disorder.
- San Diego State University, Unique patterns of neural communications found in brains of children with autism. ScienceDaily (2018).
- Image retrieved from: https://www.pexels.com/photo/photo-of-head-bust-print-artwork-724994/