Area of the brain affected by autism detected

April 3, 2017 by Peter Rüegg
Area of the brain affected by autism detected
Unusually weak neural responses (yellow spot) in the anterior cingulate cortex: autistic people find it hard to imagine themselves in somebody else’s position. Credit:  Joshua Balsters / ETH Zurich

Brain researchers at ETH Zurich and other universities have shown for the first time that a region of the brain associated with empathy only activates very weakly in autistic people. This knowledge could help to develop new therapies for those affected by autism.

Professor Nicole Wenderoth and her senior scientist Joshua Balsters, both researchers at ETH, have used functional MRI images (fMRI) from autistic adolescents to discover unusual activity in a particular region of the brain, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC).

The researchers were aware that activity in this part of the brain is coupled with the "theory of mind", which makes it possible for most people to understand others because they can imagine themselves in their place. Empathy, the emotional counterpart to the "theory of mind", is also based in this region of the brain.

The model cannot be updated

The researchers were able to detect the unusually weak neural activity in this part of the brain when the autistic subjects observed how a third person was either positively or negatively surprised. In the control subjects without autism, neural activity showed a marked response.

"People don't like surprises," says Wenderoth, Professor for Neural Control of Movement at ETH Zurich, "which is why, through environmental stimulus, the brain continually develops models of what is going on in the minds of others." This ability is enormously important for social interactions. "People with autism, however, cannot update the model in their head in such cases because the response in the cingulate cortex is too weak," says Wenderoth.

Games in the MRI

In order to see into the heads of the study participants – 16 autistic and 20 typically developed adolescents without autism – they were placed into an MRI scanner, where they observed a game they had previously played themselves.

The game involved guessing which of two doors had a reward behind it. If the player opened the right door, it turned green and they received a euro as a prize; if they guessed wrongly, the door turned red and had nothing behind it. This rule applied during the majority of the game, but sometimes – at random intervals – the computer swapped the colours; the red door led unexpectedly to a prize, while the green door revealed nothing. After each round, the researchers asked the subjects if they had expected the prize or nothing.

Predicting creates difficulties

Their findings showed that if autistic subjects played the game themselves, they had no problems answering whether receiving the prize or nothing was surprising or expected. When they watched another person playing the , however, they found it much more difficult than the non-autistic subjects to classify the result of a round as a surprise.

After an unexpected result – e.g. if the selected turned green but there was no prize behind it – there was a clear neural response in the ACC of the non-autistic participants of the control group, but there was much less activity in the autistic adolescents.

Social deficit linked with abnormal activity

"The results of our study suggest that the reacts atypically to the deviation between expectation and actual events in people with autism. Their neuronal activity only shows a slight change during situations in which other people experience something unexpected," says ETH senior scientist Balsters, who designed the experiment and conducted it with participants in Ireland. "This made it clear to us that the social deficit of autism sufferers is associated with this abnormal activity in the ACC."

The new findings could help to improve behavioural therapies for individuals with disorders, such as when teaching affected individuals how to behave. "It's often unclear whether autistic people can't do something or are simply not motivated to do it," says Balsters. He thinks that it may prove promising to offer a specific reward to those affected in order to train their social behaviour. "The is sufficiently plastic when we carry out the therapy properly," he says.

Explore further: New method for the diagnosis of autism found

More information: Joshua H. Balsters et al. Disrupted prediction errors index social deficits in autism spectrum disorder, Brain (2016). DOI: 10.1093/brain/aww287

Related Stories

New method for the diagnosis of autism found

March 21, 2017
Auditory hypersensitivity is a major complication in autism. Researchers at Mie University in Japan have demonstrated, using a rat autism model, that morphological abnormality of the auditory pathway is involved in this impairment. ...

Lasting autistic traits in women with anorexia

February 2, 2017
Women with anorexia display clear autistic traits, even once the eating disorder is under control and they have achieved a normal weight, according to research from Sahlgrenska Academy. The similarities between anorexia and ...

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 ...

Link between epilepsy and autism

October 23, 2015
A new UK study has shed light on the negative impact that epilepsy can have on autism in adult patients.

Low levels of hormone linked to social deficit in autism, study finds

July 22, 2015
A brain-chemistry deficit in children with autism may help to explain their social difficulties, according to new findings from the Stanford University School of Medicine.

Recommended for you

Signaling pathway may be key to why autism is more common in boys

October 17, 2017
Researchers aiming to understand why autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are more common in boys have discovered differences in a brain signaling pathway involved in reward learning and motivation that make male mice more vulnerable ...

Whole genome sequencing identifies new genetic signature for autism

October 12, 2017
Autism has genetic roots, but most cases can't be explained by current genetic tests.

Mum's immune response could trigger social deficits for kids with autism

October 10, 2017
The retrospective cohort study of 220 Australian children, conducted between 2011-2014, indicates that a "an immune-mediated subtype" of autism driven by the body's inflammatory and immunological systems may be pivotal, according ...

Largest study to date reveals gender-specific risk of autism occurrence among siblings

September 25, 2017
Having one child with autism is a well-known risk factor for having another one with the same disorder, but whether and how a sibling's gender influences this risk has remained largely unknown.

Faulty cell signaling derails cerebral cortex development, could it lead to autism?

September 20, 2017
As the embryonic brain develops, an incredibly complex cascade of cellular events occur, starting with progenitors - the originating cells that generate neurons and spur proper cortex development. If this cascade malfunctions ...

Predicting atypical development in infants at high risk for autism?

September 12, 2017
New research from the Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) identifies a potential biomarker that predicts atypical development in 1- to 2-month-old infants at high ...

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.