People with autism ‘have stronger connections between brain cells – making it harder for them to switch off’

People with autism have stronger connections between brain cells – making it harder for them to switch off from a thought, according to new research.

Their grey matter needs more time to ‘hang up’ on information, suggests the study, explaining the communication difficulties and repetitive behaviour.

The classic symptoms of the disorder result from “sustained” links between regions, say scientists.

Senior author Professor Jeff Anderson, of the University of Utah in the United States, said: “People with autism do not like unexpected stimuli.

“And it may be because brains are not as efficient at rapidly shifting between ideas or thoughts.”

In the first study of its kind his team showed brain connections fade out quickly for mentally healthy patients – but remains “synchronised”for up to 20 seconds for individuals with autism.

Neurons are connected by tiny junctions, or synapses. A simultaneous increase in activity means they are well synchronised – or hyper-connected.

For two decades it has been impairments to this process underlies autism. Brain imaging studies initially revealed reduced connectivity in people with autism.

The latest finding published in JAMA Network Open is contrary to this – and could lead to better drugs.

Prof Anderson said: “We wondered if we could see how local circuits in the brain react in patients with autism.”

To explore the duration of connections his team used a new fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scanning technique.

Known as multiband, multi-echo resting-state fMRI, it takes pictures of the brain faster than once per second to show synchronisation across more than 300 regions.
It measures how long, on average, functional connectivity persists.

Prof Anderson said: “We don’t have good methods for looking at the brain on these time scales. “It’s been a blind spot because it falls in between typical MRI and EEG studies.”

An EEG (electroencephalogram) involves weaing a skull cap fitted with elctrodes to measure electrical activity in the brain.

Prof Anderson and colleagues found autistic individuals experience prolonged connection compared to their typically developed peers.

They believe the enduring link provides an explanation for the symptoms – because the brain does not shift from one activity to another easily.

First author Dr Jace King, who is based in the university’s Brain Network Lab, said: “Now we are looking at finer timescales, we’ve found a consistent story. It provides us with new tools to figure out the mechanisms that may underlie autism.”

The researchers first performed fMRI scans on 90 male participants aged 19 to 34 – 52 with autism and 38 without.

Then they compared the results to those from 579 male and female autism patients and 823 controls taking part in ABIDE (Autism Brain Imaging Data Exchange).

Both studies showed sustained brain connectivity in patients with autism.

The team also found that the severity of autism symptoms increased with the duration of synchronisation.

Dr King said: “Individuals with autism who have greater social dysfunction have an increase in synched activity in their scans.”

Prof Anderson is hopeful his team is on an exciting path of discovery.

He said: “We want to compare the results from this analysis to more traditional methods.

“This is a whole new perspective into how autism works in the brain, and can help us develop strategies for treatment and finding medications that might be more effective to ease the symptoms of the disorder.”

Over 700,000 people in UK are autistic – which means almost 3 million people have a relative on the autism spectrum. It’s a lifelong condition – and there is no cure.

 

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8 Responses

  1. Miss Mandy Ward

    I started reading this because it sounded interesting… then I came across this –

    “The classic symptoms of the disorder result from “sustained” links between regions, say scientists.”

    “People with autism do not like unexpected stimuli.

    “And it may be because brains are not as efficient at rapidly shifting between ideas or thoughts.”

    The team also found that the severity of autism symptoms increased with the duration of synchronisation.

    Dr King said: “Individuals with autism who have greater social dysfunction have an increase in synched activity in their scans.”

    “This is a whole new perspective into how autism works in the brain, and can help us develop strategies for treatment and finding medications that might be more effective to ease the symptoms of the disorder.”

    Over 700,000 people in UK are autistic – which means almost 3 million people have a relative on the autism spectrum. It’s a lifelong condition – and there is no cure.

    – Yes, I cherry picked the quotes… but I did that because this language infuriates me.

    Autism is not an illness; yes, we have problems dealing with various things, and yes, other people who do not have Autism have problems understanding us, but FFS; we are whole and healthy; we just don’t conform to the “rules” of the society we live in.
    It wasn’t that long ago when LGBTQ+people were considered “ill” by the Hetero people. It wasn’t that long ago when the white people of this world thought of people with a different skin colour as “animals” to be bought and sold.

    How long is it going to be before Society accepts us for who we are? Can we please stop this idea that Autism needs to be cured and help those who need it rather than trying to change them?

      1. Matthew

        Yeah, try saying that after your kid is hospitalized from self-injury.

        There’s a lot of naivety about how autism is “just difference” – actually it really is a matter of degrees like everything else. Some people are just sort of sad; some people are excessively sad to the point of self-harm. A person with depression is not less of a person for needing treatment, and you don’t say “Oh they’re fine the way they are, don’t treat them! Just let them be sad; sadness is valid.”

        Believe it or not, lots of adults with autism are trying to find ways to cope with their condition without blaming the rest of the world for not being woke enough.

    1. NV

      As someone else with autism, I completely disagree with you. If there can be a cure, I want it and should have that option. It has done nothing but having friends and career harder. Also, high-functioning autistics are only a VERY small percentage. The rest are in diapers, nonverbal, or banging their head on the wall. Once their parents die, there is nobody left to take care of them, no to mention the low almost nonexistent quality of life. So, if there can be a cure, then there should be.

  2. Will Peace

    I wish we could get away from talking about ‘impairments’. I also do not like the distinction that appears to be being made between ‘mentally healthy’ patients and autistic ones. Many of us do have co-morbid mental health conditions. In many cases, this is because of how we’re treated by society generally! Made to feel ‘wrong’, ‘impaired’, etc. Stigmatised.

  3. Fustbariclation

    I wonder if this effect is visible in people who are higher than normal on the autism spectrum, but below the level of clinical significance.

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