According to a recent research led by a UCLA team, autism may impair child brain development in some areas associated with acquiring social skills. Those areas are often underdeveloped or have poorer connectivity in autistic children than in kids without the disorder.
Kay Jann of the UCLA Department of Neurology and lead author of the study explained that changes that affect how some areas of the brain work can impair behavior and can result in impairments very similar to those triggered by mental illnesses.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) does not only lead to psychological changes, but it can also affect behavior, study authors noted. The team now hopes that their findings may open the way for new treatments and methods of diagnosis.
Researchers were initially interested in analyzing how the ‘social brain’ works. They used a technique called spin labeling perfusion which embeds blood flow with magnetized blood water to track how much blood reached a certain area of the brain.
If there is more blood in one region, it means that that part of the brain is more active and needs more energy and oxygen than other less active areas. The team also used a technique to asses just how interconnected brain areas were in ASD patients.
Interconnectivity and activity in brain areas are crucial when trying to investigate neurocognitive disorders, researchers noted, because these two properties are often affected by the disorders.
In their study, the UCLA team analyzed the default mode network in 22 healthy kids and teens and in 17 kids and teens affected by autism. The default mode network is crucial for social interaction and emotional processes and it influences the ability of being aware that others have feelings, beliefs, intentions and mental states different from our own. This ability however is greatly impaired in autistic patients.
The findings revealed that the two groups’ brains were different. Autistic participants had a widespread blood flow in the frontal ‘social’ areas of their brain. Since blood flow is reduced after the brain manages to develop, the finding may suggest that autism may impair child brain development in these social areas.
Researchers also found reduced connectivity within some areas of the brain in autistic patients. The impairments were observed in the back and front of the brain, so the research team concluded that information cannot reach distant areas of the brain very fast which may explain why ASD patients seem so socially numb.
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