Cerebral Cortex and Thalamus Connection, and Autism

New research suggests a method to target autism at even earlier stages of development. The study, lead by San Diego State University and University of California San Diego Joint Doctoral student Aarti Nari and San Diego State University psychology professor Ralph-Axel Müller utilized “functional and anatomical magnetic resonance imaging methods along with diffusion tensor imaging,” [1] to examine a relationship between the cerebral cortex and thalamus, and its relevance to autism.

The cerebral cortex is the outermost sheet of neural tissue of the brain, covering the cerebrum and cerebellum, and divided into left and right hemispheres. This part of the brain is important for memory, attention, language, and awareness. The thalamus is located in between the cerebral cortex and the midbrain, responsible for relaying sensory and motor signals to the cerebral cortex. This in-depth study looking at the thalamus is the first of its kind in autism research, as it is quite difficult to observe due to its placement.

The study involved 50 children, aged 9-17, and yielded reduced connections between the cerebral cortex and thalamus in the children with autism. As we all learned in biology and anatomy classes, the cerebral cortex acts as a map, and the connection between the two tells the cerebral cortex how to “specialize.” Having a reduced connection between the cerebral cortex and thalamus can result in decreased skill in motor control, a common sign of autism.

Nari commented on the findings, explaining that there is currently a large focus in autism research on sensory motor skills, so this study “could potentially be utilized to devise an intervention or a type of neuro-feedback training to specifically target the thalamus, reducing future symptoms in autistic children.” As most researchers and professionals in the field would agree, early intervention is key to bettering the lives of children with autism, as the first few years of a child, especially ones with autism, are crucial and time-sensitive.

[1] “The Daily Aztec” Autism study’s practical potential. 08 Jul 2013. Web. < http://www.thedailyaztec.com/2013/07/autism-studys-practical-potential/>

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