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Children With Autism Have Underdeveloped 'Social Brain'

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Scientists discovered that parts of the brain linked to social behavior in children with autism are not as fully developed and networked as in normal brains.

According to a study published in Brain and Behavior, children affected with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have their brains structured differently from other children, which influences their behavior and how they interact with others.

"The brain controls most of our behavior and changes in how brain areas work and communicate with each other can alter this behavior and lead to impairments associated with mental disorders," said study author Kay Jann, a researcher from the UCLA Department of Neurology.

She added that by matching unusual behavior with biological changes in the brain, researchers and healthcare professionals can understand the biological side of ASD that can then contribute to the disorder's diagnosis and treatment.

To determine if patients with high-functioning ASD might have a physiologic anomaly in the "social" part of their brains, the team conducted a study on 17 children and young adults with ASD. They then compared the participants' data against 22 youths without ASD. They used magnetic resonance imaging scans to track cerebral blood flow that indicates the measure of energy use in the brain and examined neural networks to test their functional connectivity.

The researchers found that there was a widespread increase of blood flow in the frontal areas of the brain of children and youths with ASD, compared to biologically normal brains that have a generally reduced blood flow to the area. The frontal areas of the brain are responsible for understanding social cues and interacting with others. An anomaly in the blood flow to this area implied that socio-emotional cognition development in children with ASD is stunted.

Researchers also found that the participants with the disorder have reduced long-range connectivity between the frontal and distal areas of the brain, affecting the flow of information and execution of responses to perceived social behaviors.

Jann said this proved that patients with ASD do not have the same efficient networking pattern as typically developing brains, which is meant to maximize functionality while being as energy efficient as possible.

"One major brain network, the default mode network, has become a focus of such research, because it is important for social and emotional processes," added Associate Professor Danny Wang of the UCLA and co-author of the study, saying that these processes are usually impaired in patients with the disorder.

The team hopes to be able to continue to look into the an ASD brain's physiologic uniqueness and determine the relationship between the brain's neural networking and metabolism in patients with ASD.

Photo: Jeff Golden | Flickr

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