A highly interconnected brain could mean that signals zooming from sensory nerves to other networks become too overwhelming to parse apart and process, which researchers believe is a hallmark of the autistic brain. And in a study published in JAMA Psychiatry, Stanford University researchers report that this pattern of hyperconnectivity in some brain areas could provide a fingerprint for autism that helps doctors to recognize the condition at its earliest stages.
The scientists scanned the brains of 20 autistic children who ranged in age from 7 to 12 and also imaged 20 typically developing children of the same age for comparison. They found stronger connections within many critical brain networks in the autistic children, including those responsible for introspection, vision and movement.
They also saw more robust links in networks that help the brain to triage the flood of incoming information from both our bodies and our environment that assaults us constantly. Called the salience network, it's responsible for determining which internal or external sensations need our immediate attention. Using a computer program that the researchers developed to make sense of the brain imaging data, they found that by mapping the salience network alone, they could accurately classify autistic or non-autistic children in their study 78% of the time — and could do so 83% of the time using data from other researchers.
"That's wonderful," says Kamila Markram, the Autism Project Director at the Brain Mind Institute of the EPFL, a federal technology institute in Lausanne, Switzerland, who was not associated with the research, "We must move toward biological markers for autism and not just rely on interviews and observations by people." Markram previously published animal research suggesting that hyperconnectivity may be involved in autism.
Moreover, the more strongly connected the salience network was in autistic children, the worse symptoms they had in terms of repetitive behaviors like rocking and restricted interests such as being obsessed with computers or the periodic table of elements. The findings suggest that from an early age, children with autism develop differently from those without the condition, and that these changes may be detectable through brain imaging.
Image: Brain scans, via Shutterstock