UCLA brain study may explain why autistic children think differently

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Brain development is slower in children with autism.

In a first study, researchers have shown autistic brains develop more slowly than healthy brains. The finding may explain why children with autism think differently than their peers.

In their study, researchers from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Health Sciences found slower growth in brain areas that could explain social impairment, communication deficits and repetitive behaviors that characterize autism.

Using a type of brain imaging known as T1-weighted MRI allowed the scientists to map how the brain changes with growth and development.

They compared the brains of 13 boys with autism to a control group of without the disorder, on two separate occasions.

The researchers found two separate areas of the brain with abnormal development in the autistic boys – the putamen, involved in learning, and the anterior cingulate, which aids emotional processing and recognition.

They also discovered the autistic children’s white matter connections in the brain grew more slowly in the area that connects social skills and language.


First author Xua Hua, a UCLA postdoctoral researcher said:

“Together, this creates unusual brain circuits, with cells that are overly connected to their close neighbors and under-connected to important cells further away, making it difficult for the brain to process information in a normal way.”

Hua adds the areas of the brain that grew abnormally were associated with the same problems found among autistic children - “social impairment, communication deficits and repetitive behavior."

Hua suggests a different approach to educating autistic children and adults. Understanding autistic brain circuitry could also lead to a way to map the effect of treatments with brain imaging.

There is no cure for autism that affects one in 110 children in the United States.

The new study, published in the journal Human Brain Mapping, provides more insight into why children with autism have difficulty understanding and responding to their environment.

The finding also showed delays in autistic brain development continues into adolescence, though most children with autism are diagnosed before age 3.

Image credit: Moreguefile