For children with autism, brain inflexibility may explain behavior

For children with autism, brain inflexibility may explain behavior

New research has found that the brains of children with autism are relatively inflexible at switching from rest to task and this inflexibility is correlated with behaviors characteristic of the disorder.

“One of the core clinical symptoms of autism is restricted interests and repetitive behaviors,” senior study author Vinod Menon, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine, told “Autism is characterized by significant behavioral inflexibility and we were interested in finding out the brain basis of inflexibility.”

This behavioral inflexibility can manifest as atypical motor behaviors including hand flapping or restricted interests such as preoccupation with particular activities, objects and sounds. Menon noted that these behaviors could impact how a child with autism attends to the external world.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1 in 68 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder.

To study the autistic brain, Stanford researchers worked with two groups. The first group of 17 children with autism and 17 typically developing children did social face recognition tasks that required them to respond when there was a different face presented in the screen. The second equally sized group did a simple math problem solving task.

Researchers used the face recognition task because autism is characterized by social deficits. The math task was used because children with autism typically do not have deficits in that area.

All participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans during rest and during the tasks.

Compared to the typically developing participants, children with autism showed reduced differentiation between brain connectivity during rest and task— a phenomenon the researchers refer to as brain inflexibility. Additionally, researchers found a correlation between the degree of brain inflexibility shown in the fMRI scans and the severity of restrictive and repetitive behaviors in children with autism.

“We’re able to link a key feature of the autism phenotype to brain flexibility,” Menon said. “In other words, the more inflexible brain state signaling, the more severe the clinical symptoms.”

Being able to quantitatively measure inflexibility in brain signaling may help physicians better understand the clinical characteristics of the autistic brain and may inform more tailored cognitive behavioral therapy.

“Understanding brain systems and signaling processes that are inflexible is an important step for characterizing the neurobiological correlates of autism,” Menon said. “We suggest that the brain measures developed in our study might be useful for indexing response to treatment, for better characterizing systems which are inflexible, and designing interventions that target those systems.”

The study was published in Cerebral Cortex.