Weak synchronization in toddler brains may be a biological marker for autism

July 25, 2011, Weizmann Institute of Science

The biological causes of autism are still not understood. A diagnosis of autism is only possible after ages three or four; and the tests are subjective, based on behavioral symptoms. Now, in research that appeared in Neuron, scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of California, San Diego have found, for the first time, a method that can accurately identify a biological sign of autism in very young toddlers. By scanning the brain activity of sleeping children, the scientists discovered that the autistic brains exhibited significantly weaker synchronization between brain areas tied to language and communication, compared to that of non-autistic children.

"Identifying biological signs of has been a major goal for many scientists around the world, both because they may allow early diagnosis, and because they can provide researchers with important clues about the causes and development of the disorder," says postdoctoral fellow Dr. Ilan Dinstein, a member of the group of Prof. Rafael Malach, who headed this study in the Weizmann Institute's Neurobiology Department. While many scientists believe that faulty lines of communication between different are involved in the spectrum of autism disorders, there was no way to observe this in very young children, who are unable to lie still inside an fMRI scanner while they are awake.

But work by Malach's group and other research groups pointed to a solution. Their studies had shown that even during sleep, the brain does not actually switch off. Rather, the electrical activity of the switches over to spontaneous fluctuation. These fluctuations are coordinated across the two hemispheres of the such that each point on the left is synchronized with its corresponding point in the right hemisphere.

In sleeping autistic toddlers, the fMRI scans showed lowered levels of synchronization between the left and right known to be involved in language and communication. This pattern was not seen either in children with normal development or in those with delayed language development who were not autistic. In fact, the researchers found that this synchronization was strongly tied to the autistic child's ability to communicate: The weaker the synchronization, the more severe were the symptoms of autism. On the basis of the scans, the scientists were able to identify 70% of the autistic children between the ages of one and three.

Dinstein: "This biological measurement could help diagnose autism at a very early stage. The goal for the near future is to find additional markers that can improve the accuracy and the reliability of the diagnosis."

Explore further: Weaker brain 'sync' may be early sign of autism

Related Stories

Weaker brain 'sync' may be early sign of autism

June 22, 2011
In a novel imaging study of sleeping toddlers, scientists at the University of California, San Diego Autism Center of Excellence report that a diminished ability of a young brain's hemispheres to "sync" with one another could ...

New research may lead to improved diagnosis of autism

May 31, 2011
Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) may provide an early and objective indicator of autism, according to researchers at Columbia University in New York City, who used the technique to document language impairment ...

Recommended for you

How your brain remembers what you had for dinner last night

January 17, 2018
Confirming earlier computational models, researchers at University of California San Diego and UC San Diego School of Medicine, with colleagues in Arizona and Louisiana, report that episodic memories are encoded in the hippocampus ...

Recording a thought's fleeting trip through the brain

January 17, 2018
University of California, Berkeley neuroscientists have tracked the progress of a thought through the brain, showing clearly how the prefrontal cortex at the front of the brain coordinates activity to help us act in response ...

Midbrain 'start neurons' control whether we walk or run

January 17, 2018
Locomotion comprises the most fundamental movements we perform. It is a complex sequence from initiating the first step, to stopping when we reach our goal. At the same time, locomotion is executed at different speeds to ...

A 'touching sight': How babies' brains process touch builds foundations for learning

January 16, 2018
Touch is the first of the five senses to develop, yet scientists know far less about the baby's brain response to touch than to, say, the sight of mom's face, or the sound of her voice.

Researchers identify protein involved in cocaine addiction

January 16, 2018
Mount Sinai researchers have identified a protein produced by the immune system—granulocyte-colony stimulating factor (G-CSF)—that could be responsible for the development of cocaine addiction.

Brain zaps may help curb tics of Tourette syndrome

January 16, 2018
Electric zaps can help rewire the brains of Tourette syndrome patients, effectively reducing their uncontrollable vocal and motor tics, a new study shows.

0 comments

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.