How does autism affect the brain?

Changes in the structure and activity of local brain regions may contribute to cognitive and sensory symptoms in autism.

Image credit: CC0

Autism is a brain disorder that affects how people interact with others. It occupies a spectrum, with severe autism at one end and high-functioning autism at the other. People with severe autism usually have intellectual impairments and little spoken language. Those with high-functioning autism have average or above average IQ, but struggle with more subtle aspects of communication, such as body language. As well as social difficulties, many individuals with autism show repetitive behaviors and have narrow interests.

The brains of people with autism process information differently to those of people without autism. The brain as a whole shows less coordinated activity in autism, for example. But whether individual brain regions themselves also work differently in autism is unclear. Watanabe et al. set out to answer this question by using a brain scanner to compare the resting brain activity of high-functioning people with autism to that of people without autism.

In both groups, networks of brain regions increased and decreased their activity in predictable patterns. But in individuals with autism, sensory areas of the brain showed more random activity than in individuals without autism. The most random activity occurred in those with the most severe autism. This suggests that the brains of people with autism cannot hold onto and process sensory input for as long as those of neurotypical people. By contrast, a brain region called the caudate showed the opposite pattern, being more predictable in individuals with autism. The most predictable caudate activity occurred in those individuals with the most inflexible, repetitive behaviors. These differences in this neural randomness appear to result from changes in the structure of the individual brain regions.

The findings of Watanabe et al. suggest that changes in the structure and activity of small brain regions give rise to complex symptoms in autism. If these differences also exist in young children, they could help doctors diagnose autism earlier. Future studies should investigate whether the differences in brain activity cause the symptoms of autism. If so, it may be possible to treat the symptoms by changing brain activity, for example, by applying magnetic stimulation to the scalp.