Brain imaging finds neurological markers for autism

Brian Field


A recent study conduced by the Kennedy Krieger Institute, and published in the April 23 issue of Brain Advanced Access, has taken a first step in visually examining the brain activity of children with autism that may help in further studies mapping neurological development and differences between "neuro-typical" persons and those with ASD.

The researchers of the study used fMRI scans and compared brain activity of 13 children with high functioning autism and 13 of their typically developing peers while undertaking a simple motor task—tapping their fingers in sequence. Children diagnosed with autism relied more heavily on a region of the brain responsible for conscious, effortful movement, while their typically developing peers utilized a region of the brain important for automating motor tasks. Children with autism also showed less connectivity between different regions of the brain involved in coordinating and executing movement, supporting the theory that a decreased ability of distant regions of the brain to communicate with each other forms the neurological basis of autism.

Dr. Stewart H. Mostofsky, senior study author and a pediatric neurologist in the Department of Developmental Cognitive Neurology at the Kennedy Krieger Institute noted that while “tapping your fingers is a simple action…it involves communication and coordination between several regions of the brain.” He added that “these results suggest that in children with autism, fairly close regions of the brains involved in motor tasks have difficulty coordinating activity. If decreased connectivity is at the heart of autism, it makes sense social and communication skills are greatly impaired, as they involve even more complex coordination between more distant areas of the brain.”

While autism is characterized by impaired communication and social skills, these abilities are hard for scientists to measure and quantify. In contrast, the neurological processes behind motor skills are better understood, and motor tasks can be objectively observed and measured. Examining motor execution provides researchers a way to study the basic brain systems important for learning and guiding actions, which has important implications for all learned behavior, including complex communication and social skills.

“When we learn to interact with the world around us, we acquire many skills,” said Dr. Mostofsky. “Whether they are complex social skills or simple motor skills, they all begin with the brain responding to a stimulus and learning the appropriate response. In this way, studying motor skills provides important information about how the brain of a child with autism learns differently, and how autism affects the basic neural systems important for acquiring all skills, from tapping your toes in rhythm to recognizing emotions in the facial expressions of others.”

The study was funded by grants from multiple entities, including the National Alliance for Autism Research/Autism Speaks, the National Institutes of Health and the Johns Hopkins General Clinical Research Center.


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