The Relationship Between Autism and the Cerebellum

Researchers recently presented the defects in a section of the cerebellum that is correlated to language problems in individuals with autism, highlighting the importance of examining this region of the brain to help understand the disorder.

Individuals with autism often have trouble responding to something they see, which is a process controlled by the cerebellum. The cerebellum receives inputs from sensory brain regions such as the visual cortex, sending out signals to the motor complex. Until recently, researchers did not focus on the cerebellum when trying to analyze the complexities of autism, however they are beginning to emphasize its importance.

Matt Mosconi, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas, went into detail about how individuals with autism have difficulty taking visual information and following through with an action, therefore resulting in the feeling of being anxious or overwhelmed. Mosconi and his team of researchers tested the ability of individuals translating visuals into actions by having participants to match and maintain the position of two lines on a screen by squeezing a sensor in their hand.

Researchers modulated the system so that the same amount of pressure can move the line by a lot or a little. Mosconi and his colleagues scanned the brains of 20 participants with autism and 23 controls, finding that different brain pathways are involved when the test is at its most or least sensitive. Overall, they discovered that individuals on the autism spectrum struggled to hold the bar still.

People with autism have weak responses in circuits connecting into and out of the cerebellum when the bar was only moving in subtle ways. When the sensor was highly sensitive, the participants showed hyperexcitiability in the sensory regions outside of the cerebellum. Mosconi states, “In a sense, they’re just more sensitive to any changes in the visual feedback in any direction”.

A separate team of researchers used brain scans to link defects in different regions of the cerebellum to language delay in autism. The team looked at 35 people with autism, 13 of whom have language delays, and 35 controls. The participants with autism have less gray matter, particularly in one subregion of the cerebellum called the right crus1. Participants who have both autism and language delays showed a decrease in gray matter in the left crus1.

Most individuals with autism process language on the right side of their cortex, which interacts with the left side of the cerebellum. Catherine Stoodley, lead researcher and assistant professor of psychiatry at the American University states, “Within the cerebellum, you see different [circuit] loops depending on where you are.” She continues, “I think we’re getting more sophisticated in our take on the cerebellum and autism.”

In the future, researchers aim to use brain scans to analyze further links between the cerebellum and other parts of the brain. Studies are also trying to pin down the specific subregions of the cerebellum to understand their various functions.

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