New study links brainstem volume and aggression in autism

February 9, 2017 by Andrea Christensen
Haresh Manokharan holds his MRI scan. Credit: Brigham Young University

New research from BYU's autism experts is providing clues into the link between aggression and autism—clues the team hopes will eventually lead to more effective intervention.

In the study, published in Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, researchers report an inverse correlation between and brain stem volume in children with autism: the smaller the brain stem, the greater the likelihood of aggression.

The finding, though preliminary, is significant in part because "the brain stem is really involved in autonomic activities—breathing, heart rate, staying awake—so this is evidence that there's something core and basic, this connection between aggression and autism," said coauthor and BYU clinical psychology Ph.D. student Kevin Stephenson.

For the project, the team examined MRI images from two groups of children with autism: one that exhibited problematic levels of aggression and one that didn't. Study coauthor Terisa Gabrielsen, a BYU assistant professor of school psychology, said identifying the brain stem as having at least a partial involvement in aggression helps lay a foundation for better treatment. "If we know what part of the brain is different and what function that part of the brain controls, that can give us some clues into what we can do in the way of intervention," she said.

Coauthor and BYU psychology professor Mikle South added, "Once the body arousal in a child is too much—the heart is beating, the hands are clenched and the body is sweating—it's too late. Some of these kids, if the brain isn't working as efficiently, they may pass that point of no return sooner. So with behavioral interventions, we try to find out what the trigger is and intervene early before that arousal becomes too much."

BYU's Autism Connect team originated three years ago in BYU's David O. McKay School of Education, though it now includes researchers from other colleges on campus and collaborators beyond BYU. This paper, spearheaded by BYU psychology assistant professor Rebecca Lundwall, had 11 authors from BYU, one from the University of Utah and one from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The group used data collected from an NIH-funded University of Utah autism study.

Studying aggression is Autism Connect's "overarching agenda," said Gabrielsen, "because it impacts families' quality of life so significantly. If we look long-term at things that affect the family the most, aggression is one of the most disruptive."

South recounted a conversation with the mother of a child he recently diagnosed: to cope with stress, her child often pulled her hair, "so I just have a lot less hair than I used to," she told him. Aggression, South noted, "makes the family dynamic very difficult, the school dynamic very difficult. It's just a particularly difficult type of ."

In addition to a number of other studies planned or in process, the team is interested in exploring further how the brain stem is connected functionally to other areas of the brain, "because usually the brain doesn't work from just one area; it's a network of areas that all work together," Stephenson said. "So if one area is disrupted, it's likely that other areas are disrupted as well."

Explore further: Helping families cope with autism and aggression

More information: Rebecca A. Lundwall et al. Relationship between brain stem volume and aggression in children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders (2017). DOI: 10.1016/j.rasd.2016.12.001

Related Stories

Helping families cope with autism and aggression

January 24, 2014
Madeline Rainey admits she compares her son's existence to a life sentence.

Special brain activities while mother and autism spectrum disorder child gaze each other

November 15, 2016
Special activities in the brains while mother and her child with autism spectrum disorder are gazing each other have been discovered by the research team of Kanazawa University together with the research team of Osaka University. ...

Vitamin D supplements may benefit children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

November 21, 2016
Vitamin D supplementation improved symptoms of autism in a recent trial.

Researchers find key to predicting outcomes of autism treatment

November 16, 2016
Treatments for autism spectrum disorders are varied and costly, and selecting the right one is crucial to long-term outcome. Yale University researchers report they can predict whether a preschool age child will respond to ...

Trouble sleeping associated with behavioral problems in children with autism

February 16, 2016
New research from the University of Missouri has found associations between trouble sleeping and behavioral problems in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Antipsychotic prescribing trends in youths with autism and intellectual disability

May 31, 2016
About one in 10 youths treated with an antipsychotic are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder or intellectual disability. Conversely, one in six youths diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder has been prescribed antipsychotics. ...

Recommended for you

Social phobia linked to autism and schizophrenia

December 11, 2017
New Swinburne research shows that people who find social situations difficult tend to have similar brain responses to those with schizophrenia or autism.

Odors that carry social cues seem to affect volunteers on the autism spectrum differently

November 27, 2017
Autism typically involves the inability to read social cues. We most often associate this with visual difficulty in interpreting facial expression, but new research at the Weizmann Institute of Science suggests that the sense ...

Video game improves balance in youth with autism

November 21, 2017
Playing a video game that rewards participants for holding various "ninja" poses could help children and youth with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) improve their balance, according to a recent study in the Journal of Autism ...

Potential new autism drug shows promise in mice

November 14, 2017
Scientists have performed a successful test of a possible new drug in a mouse model of an autism disorder. The candidate drug, called NitroSynapsin, largely corrected electrical, behavioral and brain abnormalities in the ...

Relational factors in music therapy can contribute to positive outcome for children with autism

November 6, 2017
It might not surprise that good relationships create good outcomes, as meaningful relational experiences are crucial to all of us in our everyday life. However, the development of a relationship with a child with autism may ...

In autism, too many brain connections may be at root of condition

November 2, 2017
A defective gene linked to autism influences how neurons connect and communicate with each other in the brain, according to a study from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Rodents that lack the gene form ...

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.