Neural Timescales as a Possible Autism Diagnostic Tool

Annamaria Cavaleri ‘22

Figure 1. Cognitive symptoms of autism can be detected through neural timescales.

Takamitsu Watanabe and his research team in the RIKEN Center for Brain Science in Tokyo, Japan, found that neural ‘time windows’, the limited time during which development can be accomplished, in certain areas of the brain play a role in the cognitive symptoms of autism. A brain imaging study involving adults was used to observe the severity of autistic symptoms and how much information was stored in these areas of the brain. Studying neural time windows to detect features of autism such as hypersensitivity may help researchers with future early diagnosis.

Certain sensory areas of the brain receive input from the eyes, skin, and muscles. These areas typically have shorter processing periods versus the other higher-order areas that integrate information, memory, and decision-making. In autism, these sets of intrinsic neural timescales are interrupted (1). Among individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), it is common to see social-communication difficulties as well as repetitive behaviors. Researchers compared MRI brain scans of high-functioning autistic adults with those of the control group, which consisted of people without autism.

Both groups showed a pattern of longer timescales in frontal brain areas connected to control, and shorter timescales in motor and sensory areas when at rest. However, in individuals with autism, more random activity was displayed in sensory areas of the brain. Shorter timescales correlate to higher sensitivity in a certain brain region, and the most sensitive neural responses were found in the adults with the most severe autistic symptoms. A brain region called the caudete showed more predictability in individuals with autism. The highest predictability was seen in the patients with the most repetitive behaviors, which seems to be the result of changes in individual brain region structure.

These results imply that structural changes in smaller brain parts are related to repetition in patients with autism. They found changes in the volume of grey matter in the brain associated with atypical neural timescales versus the control group. The neural time scale measures how predictable the activity is in that particular brain region. Observing shorter timescales implies that brains of people with ASD have difficulty holding onto, as well as processing sensory information.

Further studies may be done to assess the impact of neuron density in bilateral and sensory cortices. This research explains an important feature of autism, as well as the storage of sensory information and hypersensitivity that occurs during ASD.

  1. T. Watanabe, et. al., Atypical intrinsic neural timescale in autism. eLife 8, (2019). doi: 10.3389/10.7554/eLife.42256.  
  2. Image retrieved from:

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