Biomarker for autism discovered

July 12, 2011, University of Cambridge

Siblings of people with autism show a similar pattern of brain activity to that seen in people with autism when looking at emotional facial expressions. The University of Cambridge researchers identified the reduced activity in a part of the brain associated with empathy and argue it may be a 'biomarker' for a familial risk of autism.

Dr Michael Spencer, who led the study from the University's Autism Research Centre, said: "The findings provide a springboard to investigate what specific genes are associated with this . The brain's response to facial emotion could be a fundamental building block in causing autism and its associated difficulties."

The Medical Research Council funded study is published today, 12th July, in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

Previous research has found that people with autism often struggle to read people's emotions and that their brains process emotional differently to people without autism. However, this is the first time scientists have found siblings of individuals with autism have a similar reduction in brain activity when viewing others' emotions.

In one of the largest functional MRI (fMRI) studies of autism ever conducted, the researchers studied 40 families who had both a teenager with autism and a sibling without autism. Additionally, they recruited 40 teenagers with no family history of autism. The 120 participants were given fMRI scans while viewing a series of photographs of faces which were either neutral or expressing an emotion such as happiness. By comparing the brain's activity when viewing a happy verses a neutral face, the scientists were able to observe the areas within the brain that respond to this emotion.

Despite the fact that the siblings of those with autism did not have a diagnosis of autism or Asperger syndrome, they had decreased activity in various areas of the brain (including those associated with empathy, understanding others' emotions and processing information from faces) compared to those with no family history of autism. The scans of those with autism revealed that the same areas of the brain as their siblings were also underactive, but to a greater degree. (These brain regions included the temporal poles, the superior temporal sulcus, the superior frontal gyrus, the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and the fusiform face area.)

Because the siblings without autism and the controls differed only in terms of the siblings having a of autism, the differences can be attributed to the same genes that give the sibling their genetic risk for autism.

Explaining why only one of the siblings might develop autism when both have the same biomarker, Dr Spencer said: "It is likely that in the sibling who develops autism additional as yet unknown steps - such as further genetic, brain structure or function differences - take place to cause autism."

It is known that in a family where one child already has autism, the chances of a subsequent child developing autism are at least 20 times higher than in the general population. The reason for the enhanced risk, and the reason why two can be so differently affected, are key unresolved questions in the field of autism research, and Dr Spencer's group's findings begin to shed light on these fundamental questions.

Professor Chris Kennard, chairman of the Medical Research Council funding board for the research, said: "This is the first time that a brain response to different human facial emotions has been shown to have similarities in people with autism and their unaffected brothers and sisters. Innovative research like this improves our fundamental understanding of how autism is passed through generations affecting some and not others. This is an important contribution to the Medical Research Council's strategy to use sophisticated techniques to uncover underpinning processes, to understand predispositions for disease, and to target treatments to the subtypes of complex disorders such as ."

More information: The paper "A novel functional brain imaging endophenotype of autism: the neural response to facial expression of emotion," is scheduled for publication in the July issue of Translational Psychiatry.

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Curcumin improves memory and mood, study says

January 23, 2018
Lovers of Indian food, give yourselves a second helping: Daily consumption of a certain form of curcumin—the substance that gives Indian curry its bright color—improved memory and mood in people with mild, age-related ...

Priming can negate stressful aspects of negative sporting environments, study finds

January 23, 2018
The scene is ubiquitous in sports: A coach yells at players, creating an environment where winning is the sole focus and mistakes are punished. New research from the University of Kansas shows that when participants find ...

Social and emotional skills linked to better student learning

January 23, 2018
Students with well-developed and adaptive social and emotional behaviours are most likely to excel in school, according to UNSW researchers in educational psychology.

Study of learning and memory problems in OCD helps young people unlock potential at school

January 22, 2018
Adolescents with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have widespread learning and memory problems, according to research published today. The findings have already been used to assist adolescents with OCD obtain the help ...

People with prosthetic arms less affected by common illusion

January 22, 2018
People with prosthetic arms or hands do not experience the "size-weight illusion" as strongly as other people, new research shows.

Intensive behavior therapy no better than conventional support in treating teenagers with antisocial behavior

January 19, 2018
Research led by UCL has found that intensive and costly multisystemic therapy is no better than conventional therapy in treating teenagers with moderate to severe antisocial behaviour.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jul 12, 2011
There is undoubtedly a genetic component to autism, specifically to Asperger's syndrome. Since it is a high-functioning form of ASD, it often remains undiagnosed. It also is subject to variable expression.
One of the peculiarities of Asperger's is that Aspies often find others' emotions hard to read. I suggest that this is because a direct neural pathway between the emotional center of the brain and the motor center, ubiquitous in 'normal' people, is absent in Aspies.
This pathway allows people to readily associate emotions and behaviour in themselves, and thus to quickly learn to associate others' behaviour with their emotions.
The absence or underdevelopment of this pathway in Aspies suppresses physical components of emotional expression, giving them 'poker faces', and depriving them of an important basis for associating other's behaviour with emotions.
This gene also app
This pathway is probably not a yay/nay affair, but would be moderated by the degree of expression of a gene
not rated yet Jul 12, 2011
Good comment, but I would ditch the term "Aspies" as it sounds rather condescending. This is a touchy subject for a lot of people so some sensitivity is sensible. Unless you are an Aspie, in which case you probably have a hard time understanding this aspect of human relationships.
not rated yet Jul 12, 2011
Please put a " 1" google button at the end of your articles already Medxpress!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.