Autism & Busy Brains: Does Brain Activity Interfere with Sociability?

Date: 
February 03, 2014
Small study shows high brain activity when children with autism are at rest; researchers say this could explain “withdrawal into self”

A small study suggests that the brains of children with autism generate more information when at rest than do the brains of other children. The researchers say that this excess production of information may explain the withdrawal into an “inner world” seen in many individuals with autism.

The investigators – from Case Western Reserve University and the University of Toronto – used magnetoencephalography to compare the brain activity of nine children with Asperger syndrome to ten age-matched children without the disorder. Asperger’s is a subtype of autism.

The researchers told the children to relax during the recording sessions, which lasted between 30 and 60 seconds. Their results showed that the brains of the children with Asperger syndrome were more active – around 42 percent more – than were the brains of the other children. The participants ranged in age from 6 to 16. 

"Our results suggest that autistic children are not interested in social interactions because their brains generate more information at rest," says investigator Roberto Fernández Galán, a Case Western neuroscientist. The study’s method of measuring brain processes is new, as is the interpretation, the researchers admit. Their report appears in Frontiers in Neuroinformatics.

The findings are in line with the "Intense World Theory" of autism recently proposed by Swiss neuroscientists Henry and Kamila Markram. This theory describes autism as resulting from brain over-arousal.

“It's very difficult to interpret the electrical activity of the brain,” comments Paul Wang, Autism Speaks senior vice president for medical research. “It's not surprising that the researchers found differences between the subjects with autism and those who weren’t affected. But when the authors speculate that the Aspergers brain produces more information at rest, this is just a guess. Are these individuals thinking about favorite topics?  Are they noticing things that other people don't notice? Are they trying extra-hard to interpret the social intentions of the researcher? We just don't know.”