Difficulty communicating with their environment, engaging in repetitious behavior, and feeling frustration with their surroundings; these are only some of most notable symptoms of autism. However, new research from the Weizmann Institute in Israel may be the first step in explaining how autism really works in the brain, and why so many autistic individuals struggle to communicate with their environment.
By comparing the function of “normal” brains to autistic brains in their resting states, Avital Hahamy and Prof. Rafi Malach were able to show that autistic brains are unique, each in their own right. This may seem like quite an obvious observation, but when Hahamy conducted her study, recently published in “Nature Neuroscience,” it was largely thought that autistic brains could be categorized together when compared with a normal functioning brain. Now it is clear that each and every individual case of autism produces different habits in the brain, explaining the wide-range of social disturbances that autistic individuals experience, and justifying the rather vague name of the condition, autism spectrum disorder.
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No two autistic brains are alike
Hahamy was able to come to the conclusion that each autistic brain is unique following her and her colleagues’ research into brain connectivity, and functional brain connectivity in particular. Functional connectivity is a measure of how well activity in different areas of the brain is synchronized. Hahamy sought to examine resting state functional connectivity, or the level of synchronization between activities in different parts of brain while an individual is at rest, in order to find out how an autistic brain differs from a typical brain. This is measured with an fMRI scanner that reads brain activity by analyzing changes in blood flow.
Although the practice of examining resting state functional connectivity in the brain to examine disorders like autism isn’t new, research on how autistic brains function remained a mystery in extant literature; some researchers found that autistic people have increased connectivity in the brain, while others reported a decrease in functional connectivity. Hahamy and her team were able to establish that each autistic brain acts in a unique fashion, in comparison to a typical brain, even when examined together with other autistic brains. According to Hahamy, “This makes it difficult to identify what is common across all autistic patients because their brains are not all the same,” despite the fact that the research describes better than ever before how autistic brains function on a general level.
The way our brains function can tell us more about our habits
Another important finding in the research touched upon the implications of resting state functional connectivity on autistic behavior. If you have ever encountered or personally know an autistic person, then you are probably aware that some autistic individuals struggle to complete ordinary functions, while others conduct themselves in a more stable social state. Hahamy’s hypothesis suggests that resting state functional connectivity can tell us more about how our brains function in the day-to-day (when they aren’t resting), and hopefully shed light on which habits autistic individuals engage in that makes their brain activity differ from the norm.
“Looking at resting state functional connectivity can tell us about our daily behavior, or the way that we interact with the external world, our habits, our traits and everything that makes us who we are. The main assumption here is that our routine behavior is reflected in our brain activity during rest,” Hahamy explains.
She points to a paper published by a fellow Israeli researcher, Tamar Makin, that examined resting state functional connectivity in people who were only born with one hand, examining brain activity in the areas that control hand movement. It showed that those who had full function of both of their hands had higher levels of functional connectivity than those with control of only one of their hands. This study and the results of her own research lead Hahamy to hypothesize that unique patterns of interaction with the world lead to unique connectivity patterns in the brain, and vice versa in individuals without autism. Though still only a hypothesis, such a finding could have major implications for the way autism is treated, and the way that autistic children are educated.
Though Hahamy reinforces the fact that her findings are still preliminary, she is optimistic for their possible future contributions to the treatment of autism and other brain disorders, “If our hypothesis is correct, if your daily life and habits are imprinted into your resting state functional connectivity, we could probably encode certain brain functions not only in autistic individuals, but in other clinical populations too, and maybe even in typical individuals looking to improve their brain function.”
The study was conducted by principle researcher Avital Hahamy and Prof. Rafi Malach of the Weizmann Institute’s Neurobiology Department, and Prof. Marlene Behrmann of Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh.