New research shows that autism spectrum disorders (ASD) affect the brain activity of children and adults differently.
“We found that brain activity changes associated with autism do not just happen in childhood, and then stop,” said Daniel Dickstein, M.D., director of the Pediatric Mood, Imaging and Neurodevelopment Program at Bradley Hospital in East Providence, R.I.
“Instead, our study suggests that they continue to develop, as we found brain activity differences in children with autism compared to adults with autism.”
Dickstein conducted a meta-analysis of pre-existing studies; this allowed the researcher team to “directly compare the brain activity in children with autism versus adults with autism,” according to Dickstein.
The researchers conducted the study through Bradley Hospital’s PediMIND Program. Started in 2007, the program seeks to identify biological and behavioral markers that could improve how children and adolescents are diagnosed and treated for psychiatric conditions.
Using special computer games and brain scans — including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) — Dickstein said he hopes to one day make the diagnosis and treatment of autism and other disorders more specific and effective.
One of autism’s most disabling symptoms is a disruption in social skills. The new study found significantly less brain activity in autistic children than autistic adults during social tasks, such as looking at faces, he said. This was true in the right hippocampus and superior temporal gyrus, two regions of the brain associated with memory and other functions.
“Brain changes in the hippocampus in children with autism have been found in studies using other types of brain scan, suggesting that this might be an important target for brain-based treatments, including both therapy and medication that might improve how this brain area works,” Dickstein said.
“Autism spectrum disorders, including autistic disorder, Asperger’s disorder, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), are among the most common and impairing psychiatric conditions affecting children and adolescents today,” added the researchers.
“If we can identify the shift in the parts of the brain that autism affects as we age, then we can better target treatments for patients with ASD.”
The findings were published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.