Brain Imaging Study Pinpoints Social Difficulties in Children with ASD

Innovative methods of brain imaging have recently uncovered new evidence explaining why “theory of mind”, or ToM deficiencies, are present in children with autism spectrum disorders. Researchers believe that children with ASD have difficulties in social interactions due to an inability to process and fully understand the thoughts and feelings of others, evidenced through complications with ToM. This leads children to possibly lack how to empathize, sympathize, or be able to predict how one may emotionally react to a situation.

Through brain imaging, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found disruptions in the brain’s circuitry involved with ToM on multiple levels. This research provides insight on how this very important neural network is linked to social discrepancies in children with ASD.

autism-brains_201x201Marcel Just, Professor of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University states, “Reduced brain activity in ToM-related brain regions and reduced connectivity among these regions in children with autism suggest how deficits in the neurobiological mechanisms can lead to difficulties in cognitive and behavioral functioning, such as theory of mind.” He continues, “Weaker coordination and communication among core brain areas during social thinking tasks in autism provides evidence for how different brain areas in autism struggle to work together as a team.”

The researchers utilized an approach first developed by Fulvia Castelli of the University of Pavia, creating animation videos that focus on two geometric shapes moving about the screen. The shapes moved in ways that incorporated the two together, such as dancing or wheeling around each other. As per the researchers, “seeing” the interactions was in the mind of the beholder, more specifically, in the ToM circuitry of their brains. With a lack of ToM, the shapes were simply moving, not interacting.

To study the neural mechanisms involved with ToM and how they may be deficient in children with ASD, the researchers used a study group of 13 children with ASD and 13 neurotypical children to watch the animated films. The children were each asked to identify the mental states of their shapes based on how they moved about, all while being scanned by an fMRI. According to their findings, the children with ASD showed reduced activation levels in areas of the brain that consists of the ToM network, compared to the control group, such as the medial frontal cortex and temporo-parietal junction. Furthermore, the group discovered a lack of synchronization between the two areas.

“One reason this finding is so interesting is that the ‘actors’ in the films have no faces, facial expressions or body posture on which to base a judgment of an emotion or attitude,” states Rajesh Kana, associate professor of psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He continues, “The neurotypical children managed to identify a social interaction without social cues, such as interpreting the large triangle nudging the smaller one as a parent’s attempt to encourage a child, but the ASD children were unable to make the connection.”

By focusing on young children, the researchers were able to identify altered brain circuitry earlier in development, potentially leading to better therapy interventions that can train children to better understand social cues and how to understand interactions between others. This can help them greatly as they get older and may want to pursue higher education or the workforce.

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