More than a quarter of children with autism spectrum disorder are also diagnosed with disruptive behavior disorders.
Now, researchers at Yale University have identified a possible biological cause, finding that a key mechanism that regulates emotion functions differently in the brains of the children who exhibit disruptive behavior.
“Disruptive behaviors such as aggression, irritability, and noncompliance are common in children with autism, and are among the main reasons for psychiatric treatment and even hospitalization,” said Denis Sukhodolsky, senior author and an associate professor in the Yale Child Study Center. “Yet, little is known about the biological underpinnings of behavioral problems in children with autism.”
The study used fMRI scans conducted during an emotion perception task to compare the brain activity of autistic children, some who exhibit disruptive behaviors and some who do not.
While in the scanner, the children were asked to look at pictures of human faces that displayed calm or fearful expressions.
During the task, the researchers found reduced connectivity between the amygdala and ventrolateral prefrontal cortex — a pathway critical to the regulation of emotion — in the brains of children who exhibit disruptive behavior.
“Reduced amygdala-ventrolateral prefrontal cortex functional connectivity was uniquely associated with disruptive behavior, but not with severity of social deficits or anxiety, suggesting a distinct brain network that could be separate from core autism symptoms,” said Dr. Karim Ibrahim, first author and a postdoctoral fellow in the Sukhodolsky lab.
“This finding points to a brain mechanism of emotion dysregulation in children with autism and offers a potential biomarker for developing targeted treatments for irritability and aggression in autism.”
The study was published in Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging.
Source: Yale University