The Neuroscience of Autism
SEO Description: Affecting approximately one in 59 children born in the United States, autism is a condition linked to brain development. But what does science know about the neuroscience of autism? We explain in this post.
Autism. It’s a word that’s been thrown around a lot in recent years. Increased media coverage and research have brought autism to the forefront of many parents’ minds. Affecting approximately one in 59 children born in the United States, autism is a condition linked to brain development.
What exactly is autism?
Autism is a group of developmental brain disorders, collectively called autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The disorders are often referred to as a “spectrum” because the severity and range of symptoms vary widely. While some kids are only mildly affected, others may be severely disabled. Regardless, these disorders are generally characterized by abnormal development in social interaction and communication usually accompanied by restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behaviors and interests that are often evident before the age of 3.
No one knows exactly why autism occurs, but there have been theories that autism is actually nature’s attempt to adapt to the times of super-specialization and that autism might simply be a natural evolutionary variation in human species.
People living with autism have often been able to find their niche in super-specialized jobs in industries ranging from information technology, engineering — or really anything that allows intense focus, having clearly defined responsibilities, and structure. However, there is still a huge need for more industry jobs that will accept working with individuals with autism.
The Neuroscience behind Autism
The physical and social manifestations of autism are more obvious than others, but finally, more scientific research has looked into the neuroscience behind autism. Some of these symptoms have been linked to anatomical abnormalities in brain areas like the cerebellum, the brain stem, frontal lobes, parietal lobes, hippocampus, and the amygdala.
New understandings in autism neurobiology are constantly emerging. For example, at the Autism Research Centre in the Department of Psychiatry in Cambridge, researchers have shown that higher prenatal testosterone levels are associated with reduced social skills, but superior attention to detail in infants, a common autistic symptom. The group had previously discovered that the amygdala, a part of the brain associated with emotional processing, is under-active when people with autism and Asperger Syndrome attempt to decode emotional facial expressions.
Additionally, in a recently-published study, researchers at the UNC School of Medicine recently found that dysfunction in precursor cells called Radial Glial Cells (RGCs) may be linked to autism symptoms. These RGCs play a critical role in the development of the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain responsible for higher brain functions including perception, speech, long-term memory, and consciousness. In development, RGCs form a scaffold for young neurons to climb and organize themselves, but in people with autism, mutations in the (Mediator of Cell Motility) Memo 1 gene cause the initial RGC scaffold to be too messy and disorganized to form properly, leading to neuronal disorganization. This finding suggests that Memo1-associated autism may be wired into the brain very early in development than are other forms of autism with origins in disrupted neuronal differentiation and connectivity. However not all individuals diagnosed with autism exhibit the same mutation or genotype.
Mirror neurons have also been found to play a critical role in autism symptoms. A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Scholars have suggested that this mirror neuron mechanism is disrupted in autism, leaving individuals without this automatic flow of shared felt experiences of self and other behaviors, which is why social learning an understanding is often stunted for the individuals with the diagnosis.
What Should I Do if I Think My Child or if I have it?
If you suspect that you or your child has autism, you can schedule an evaluation with a developmental pediatrician, a neurologist or a neuropsychologist. After the initial suspicion of diagnosis a neuropsychological evaluation will help you to better understand where you or your child are on the spectrum. Additionally, cutting-edge research has explored plenty of methods that can help mediate these symptoms. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, cognitive rehabilitation and social skills training by trusted professionals can greatly help you or your child learn to best adapt in society.