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Autistic brain has fewer neurons for processing emotion

For the first time, research has shown that the autistic brain has fewer neurons in an area related to emotion and social behavior, according to a new study published in the July 19 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience.

This study provides quantitative evidence linking autism to an abnormality of the amygdala, especially the lateral nucleus—a major emotion-processing area with connections to parts of the brain responsible for higher cognitive functions.

“These new findings, based on cell counting, complement other independent studies that suggest amygdala abnormalities likely contribute significantly to the primary core deficit in social function that defines this disorder,” says Emanuel DiCicco-Bloom, MD, professor of pediatric neurology at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

Authors Cynthia Schumann, PhD, of the University of California, San Diego, and David Amaral, PhD, director of the M.I.N.D. Institute at the University of California, Davis, counted and measured neurons in the amygdala of nine postmortem autistic male brains and 10 age-matched male postmortem non-autistic brains. Ages ranged from 10 to 44 years old. Unlike previous postmortem studies, the sample excluded brains of individuals with epilepsy or similar disorders associated with cell loss in the amygdala.

Paradoxically, past research using magnetic resonance imaging with children has shown that the amygdala in young males with autism is abnormally large in volume due to precocious maturation. “It is somewhat surprising, therefore, that there are ultimately fewer neurons in the autistic amygdala,” says Schumann.

Schumann suggests different explanations: the amygdala was always that way from birth, a degenerative process later in life may cause the neuron loss, or the heightened level of stress and anxiety commonly observed in patients with autism could, over time, lead to a loss of neurons. More studies are needed to pinpoint exactly why autistic brains have fewer neurons in the amygdala, she adds.

“We’re in the very early stages of understanding autism and its neurological pathologies,” says Amaral. “It’s clearly a process with many steps, and at least we are now one step further.”

Autism is a lifelong neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by social and communication deficits. It affects as many as 1 in every 166 children, primarily males.

Source: The Journal of Neuroscience

Autistic brain has fewer neurons for processing emotion

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2015). Autistic brain has fewer neurons for processing emotion. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 16, 2018, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2006/07/21/autistic-brain-has-fewer-neurons-for-processing-emotion/117.html

 

Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 6 Oct 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 6 Oct 2015
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.