Unlocking Autism: New Insights Say There Are Brain Wiring Differences

In a new study, scientists uncovered more about how the autistic brain works and the potential origins of autism-related behaviors.

Many autism experts and people in the scientific community believe that the brains of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are wired differently. However, scientists still don't understand what those wiring differences are and how they contribute to communication and behavioral challenges associated with autism.

Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), scientists have already identified that autistic individuals may have slightly different brain structures than non-autistic people.

For example, research published in 2023 found that brain volume differences in autistic individuals in language-related areas of the brain may explain why some people with ASD have speech and language challenges.

Moreover, scientists have used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to map the brain's responses to stimuli and found that social-communication impairments associated with autism may result from abnormal functional connectivity of specific brain networks.

Yet, it's unclear how information moves through these brain networks and whether structural differences in the autistic brain impact conductivity between neurons.

Using the latest neuroimaging data and computational methods, researchers from the University of Virginia (UVA) have revealed more details about how neurons transmit information in the brains of autistic people and found links between this altered brain wiring and ASD-related behaviors.

How brain wiring differs in autistic people

The study, published in PLOS One, included 148 individuals diagnosed with ASD (47% female) and 124 non-autistic people (50% female). The researchers assessed all participants using the Social Communication Questionnaire (SCQ) — a parent-report questionnaire clinicians use to screen for autism-associated behaviors.

Each participant underwent diffusion MRI, an imaging technique that allows scientists to see how water moves through the brain and interacts with cellular membranes.

After analyzing and computing the data, the researchers discovered that the diameter of axons, or brain "wiring" that sends and receives electrical impulses between neurons, differs in autistic individuals. Moreover, this structural difference slows electrical conductivity between neurons in the brain.

The scientists also found a direct link between these structural differences in autistic participants and Social Communication Questionnaire scores.

In a press release, lead study author Benjamin Newman, a postdoctoral researcher with UVA's Department of Psychology, said, "What we're seeing is that there's a difference in the diameter of the microstructural components in the brains of autistic people that can cause them to conduct electricity slower. It's the structure that constrains how the function of the brain works."

The scientists say this discovery could lay the groundwork for new diagnostic techniques. In addition, the study's results could open doors to new diagnosis and treatment strategies for other neurological conditions such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's disease.

The study's co-author, John Darrell Van Horn, a professor of psychology and data science at UVA, said, "This is the first time this kind of metric has been applied in a clinical population, and it sheds some interesting light on the origins of ASD."

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