A study published February 27 in BioMed Central’s open access journal BMC Medicine, by researchers from Boston Children’s Hospital have found a structural disparity in brain connections. Using a “network analysis” like that used to study airlines or electrical grids, may help in understanding some typical behaviors in autism.
A look at how the brain deals with information finds a distinctive prototype in children with autism spectrum disorders. Compared with neurotypical children, those with autism have numerous superfluous connections between adjoining brain areas at the expense of long-distance links.
Jurrian Peters, MD, of the Department of Neurology at Boston Children’s Hospital, who is co-first author of the paper with Maxime Taquet, a PhD student in Boston Children’s Computational Radiology Laboratory says, “We examined brain networks as a whole in terms of their capacity to transfer and process information. What we found may well change the way we look at the brains of autistic children.”
Peters, Taquet and senior authors Simon Warfield, PhD, of the Computational Radiology Laboratory andMustafa Sahin,MD, PhD, of Neurology, compared EEG recordings from two groups of autistic children: 16 children with classic autism, and 14 children whose autism is part of a genetic syndrome known as tuberous sclerosis complex (TSC). These readings were compared with EEGs from two control groups — 46 healthy neurotypical children and 29 children with TSC but not autism.
There were more short-range connections within different brain regions, in both groups with autism, but fewer connections linking far-flung areas.
This brain network that involves short-range over long-range connections is seemingly very consistent with autism’s characteristic cognitive profile, which typically is a child who excels at explicit, attentive tasks like memorizing maps, but who is unable to incorporate information from various brain areas into more coherent concepts.
Peters says, “For example, a child with autism may not understand why a face looks really angry, because his visual brain centers and emotional brain centers have less cross-talk. The brain cannot integrate these areas. It’s doing a lot with the information locally, but it’s not sending it out to the rest of the brain. It’s a simpler, less specialized network that’s more rigid, less able to respond to stimulation from the environment”.
The NIH Autism Center of Excellence recently announced a grant where Peters and his colleagues will repeat the analysis as part of a multicenter study, taking EEG recordings prospectively under uniform conditions.