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‘Typical’ Brains Conform; Autistic Brains ‘Go Their Own Way’

Study suggests that “typical” brains synchronize in one common way, while those in people with autism display unique patterns
January 28, 2015

A new study suggests that each person with autism has a unique pattern of brain activity – in stark contrast to typically developed brains, which appear to synchronize in a common way. The finding of such extreme variation may echo this week’s discovery that autism’s genetic underpinnings are even more diverse than previously thought.

See “Largest-ever Autism Genome Study Finds Most Siblings with Autism Have Different Genetic Predispositions.”

“These results are consistent with the fact that every person with autism is different,” comments developmental pediatrician Paul Wang, Autism Speaks senior vice president for medical research. “As they say, ‘When you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism.’" (Autism Speaks was not involved in the study.)

In the investigation, researchers at Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science analyzed MRI brain scans of 141 men, ages 18 to 44. Of these, 68 had autism on the milder end of the spectrum (so called “high functioning autism”). All the brain scans were taken while the men were at rest.

“Resting-state brain studies are important because that is when patterns emerge spontaneously, allowing us to see how various brain areas naturally connect and synchronize their activity,” explains study co-author Avital Hahamy.

All the men unaffected by autism shared a similar pattern of brain synchronization, the researchers report. By contrast, the men in the autism group varied widely in the way different parts of their brains communicated and synchronized their activity.

"From a young age, the average, typical person's brain networks get molded by…shared experiences that could make synchronization patterns more similar to each other,” Hahamy proposes. “It is possible that in ASD, as interactions with the environment are disrupted, each one develops a more uniquely individualistic brain organization pattern."

Adds Dan Smith, Autism Speaks senior director for discovery neuroscience: “Findings such as this are important because until we understand the brain differences that underlie autism, we won’t fully understand how to improve and personalize treatments for disabling symptoms.”

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