New research out of San Diego State University’s Brain Development Imaging Laboratory further illuminates the neurological roots of autism spectrum disorders. A research team, lead by Aarti Nair, grad student in SDSU/UCSD Joint Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology, focused on imaging the brains of children with autism to determine the efficacy of certain connections within the brain.

The research analyzed over 50 children, both autistic and neurotypical, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), which is a means by which researchers determine the rate of information transmitted in the brain. The research found that children with autism have an impaired connection between the thalamus and the cerebral cortex, which has wide-ranging effects on motor skills, communication, and other sensory behaviors.

The thalamus is often considered to be a “switchboard” for the brain, as it transmits information between the cerebral cortex and subcortical areas. The thalamus is also the method by which sensory input is transmitted to the cerebral cortex, making this connection paramount for managing stimuli. The impaired connection between the cerebral cortex and the thalamus found in children with autism indicates that the outward behaviors of autism, such as poor motor skills, are the result of deep neurological issues.

Dr. Müller, SDSU psychology professor and senior investigator in this study stated “This impaired connectivity suggests that autism is not simply a disorder of social and communicative abilities, but also affects a broad range of sensory and motor systems.”

This study contributes to a growing body of research about the neurological nature of autism. Although traditional diagnostic criteria have focused on outward symptoms like social or motor impairments, this research suggests that a wider spectrum of issues may be consistent with a diagnosis of autism.

This study was published in the June issue of the journal BRAIN. It was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Autism Speaks Dennis Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellowship.

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