a girl doing a handstandYou might be able to touch your toes, but how flexible is your brain? Brain activity in certain areas can indicate whether the brain is flexible—easily able to switch between tasks—or not. Researchers from Stanford University conducted an experiment to determine how mentally flexible people with autism are. The research team finds that children with autism have less flexible brain networks. The findings could inform new methods of therapy for people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

The researchers assessed 17 children with autism and 17 typically developing children. First, they conducted standard clinical evaluations to evaluate the children’s autism symptoms. Then they used functional MRI (fMRI) scanning to observe the children’s brains while they were at rest. Afterwards, the researchers had the children complete two tasks: a set of simple arithmetic problems and a task that required the children to distinguish faces. The researchers selected these tasks because they are representative of the strengths (math skills) and weaknesses (facial recognition) of people with ASD.

Children with autism have less flexible brains than typically developing children. The researchers saw similar patterns in the autistic children’s brain activity when they were at rest and when they were performing tasks. In contrast, the typically developing children’s brains demonstrated a shift in activity patterns when they transitioned from resting to performing tasks. Despite the difference in connectivity, children with autism performed as well as the typically developing children on both tasks.

The researchers also found a correlation between inflexible brain patterns and the severity of a child’s restrictive and repetitive behaviors.

The study is the first to examine this type of change in brain activity for children with autism. It may help scientists understand what happens in the brains of people with autism. The study also suggests therapeutic methods that promote a flexible brain.

“The findings may help researchers evaluate the effects of different autism therapies. Therapies that increase the brain’s flexibility at switching from rest to goal-directed behaviors may be a good target, for instance,” explained Kaustubh Supekar, Ph.D., a research associate and one of the study’s lead authors.

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