Brains of Autistic Children Are Surprisingly Hyper-Connected

By Ben Thomas | November 7, 2013 11:57 am

boy autism

From a non-autistic point of view, people with autism can seem somewhat disconnected in social and emotional terms. It’d be tempting to attribute this to differences in brain connectivity—wiring that never quite got connected—and in fact, this has been the prevailing hypothesis. But this week, researchers report that the brains of autistic children are actually more connected than the brains of non-autistic children are.

Conventional Wisdom

For years, studies have appeared to show that the brains of autistic people are underconnected in comparison with the brains of non-autistic people—both in terms of structure (physical connections between brain cells) and of function (information exchanged among brain areas). In a way, this seemed to make sense on an intuitive level: People with autism might be task-focused and socially withdrawn because their brains couldn’t connect some of their experiences with others—or so the thinking went.

But as other investigators examined this research more closely, they began to notice flaws. Most of these studies only examined connectivity during specific cognitive tasks, and only within a select few brain regions. This led researchers to wonder what they might find if they scanned the brains of autistic people as a whole, all at once, when they weren’t focused on specific tasks.

What they discovered may overturn the prevailing view of the autistic brain. Two new studies by independent teams have found that the brains of autistic children and adolescents are actually overconnected in comparison with the brains of non-autistic people—and that this hyperconnectivity takes on some distinctive patterns.

Autistic Brains

The studies, one at San Diego State University and another at Stanford University, consisted of fMRI scanning of children and teens with autism and a non-affected control group, all of whom were directed to think about nothing in particular. The results were surprising: In the San Diego study, brains of adolescents with severe autism showed strikingly greater resting connectedness than brains of adolescents with mild autism, which were in turn more connected than unaffected adolescents. And the same held true for younger children in the Stanford study: autistic children’s brains displayed much greater functional connectivity than the brains of their non-autistic counterparts did.

What’s more, the specifics of this hyperconnectivity provide some intriguing hints about the nature of autism. Both studies found that functional connectivity in autistic people’s brains was most increased in the visual and extrastriate cortices, which deal with sight; and in the temporal lobe, which plays crucial roles in processing and associating sensory input.

Insights to Autism

“It’s tempting to relate these regional patterns to the large body evidence suggesting that vision is special in autism spectrum disorders,” study author Ralph-Axel Müller says. “Some visual abilities tend to be superior in ASD, and there’s some agreement that many people with ASD use visual processing even when a task is not visual.” What this means about autism as a whole, on the other hand, remains an open question.

Still, this heightened understanding of autistic brain connectivity could aid the development of quicker, more precise clinical tools for detecting autism in young children. The author of the other study, Kaustubh Superkar, is already working on a computer system that will distinguish autistic children from non-autistic children based on their differing patterns of brain activity.

 

Image by Andy Dean Photography / Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, select
  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Autism is exacerbated by ultrasonicating developing fetal brains – ultrasonic imaging. Microscopically disordering phase discontinuities/impedance mismatches – lipid membranes vs. bulk aqueous medium – is a stupid thing to do. Directed growth randomizes and fragments.

    Prodigies and our most intelligent people are autists. We should be effusively funding the strengths of our eldtritch outliers, not therapeutically enforcing compulsory degradative egalitarianism. We worship the lame, halt, dim-witted, and the proven unable diverse. Rather than foster brilliance, we allocate for its suppression.

    • Stephen Daugherty

      Ultrasonicating? Give me a break.

    • Bryan Songy

      Nice thesaurus you got there Al. But, as a parent of a child with ASD, and knowing that my wife had one ultrasound in her entire pregnancy, your big words are eloquently hollow. Judging by the rate that diagnosis of ASD increased in just the last decade (and of course methodology has contributed to this increase) I would look to environmental factors. Prions maybe? But, when we live in a country that denied global warming even exists; I am willing to guess that someones bottom line conflicts with that train of thought.
      PS. If a brilliant person cannot feed themselves, or maintain basic hygiene, then it is all for naught.

      • gaylep

        My son’s psychiatrist said that the reason autism seems to be on the rise in recent years is that it’s being correctly diagnosed. I’m not sure it’s completely accurate, but it’s worth considering.

        • Bryan Songy

          Your son’s psychiatrist is precisely right, and that is what I was referencing in my, ” methodology has contributed to this increase” statement. Also, many have said that ‘overdiagnosis’ has led to this rise in diagnoses as well. As I understand it there are some looking to separate Aspergers and Fragile X from ASD as different diagnosis. This brings me no warm fuzzies as that handling the cost of someone with full on Autism is very hard, I would hate for these people to be delegated to a smaller sub sect with less funding and resources.

          • kait

            But why would you seek to “handle” a person with autism? Handle = control. How would you feel if someone complained about not knowing how to “handle” you? Why not just let your son be who he is instead of trying to “fix” him? It seems as if you view yourself as superior to autistic people and that is very disgusting ableist thinking. It may be hard raising an autistic son but how do you think he feels? Why is the focus always on the parent rather than the person whose actually dealing with the autism directly? Do you not have any empathy? How do you think it feels to be treated like a burden? Treated like you’re inferior?

          • NOLA

            I don’t think you have a very good reading comprehension skill set. I clearly wrote “handle the cost.” Cost in this case is the thing being handled. Also, if you don’t think that a Autistic child needs to be controlled, then you are either a child or an idiot. Google ‘autistic child missing.’ See how many of those stories have happy endings.

          • kait

            How would you feel if someone wanted to put you under their control? I really want to know the answer to that question. You obviously don’t see autistic people as human beings worthy of empathy

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

        1) Heavy metal concert or large caliber pistol, either without ear protection, ~100 decibels. Your middle ears’ delicate structure is whacked. Fetal ultrasound imaging is focused ~100 decibels for about 30 minutes. Autism is selective toward mothers with saturating medical coverage, and the deserving FOB Medicaid and other charitable grotesqueries. Look up “iatrogenic” and “nosocomial.”

        2) You demand society’s confiscated resources (my taxes) gorge the worst not further the best. Pay for your own life out of your own wallet. Costs will drop for everybody. “ If a brilliant person cannot feed themselves, or maintain basic hygiene” you have Stephen Hawking. He managed to commit adultery, too.

        3) Physical reality is not a peer vote, fashion, or self-empowerment. Reality is bloody and sincere. Do what you can with what you have. Avoid parasites offering paradise.

        • Bryan Songy

          I weep for your stunted Moral Development…look up Lawrence Kohlberg as it relates to Jean Piaget’s cognitive model.

          • kait

            You’re the one with the lack of morals.

        • Kesi

          sorry buddy..but as an aspie myself..i can tell you it wasnt caused by ultrasounds…my mother didnt go to the hospital until shortly before I was born because she had no insurance..sorry to burst your bubble

      • Eventide Parfait

        Not if you give them access to the right things. Seriously, that’s what we have planners and schedules for.

  • Gabrielle Siegel

    Could you list the research articles so that I can read them?

    • Lisa Raffensperger

      Links have now been added, Gabrielle.

      • Gabrielle Siegel

        Thanks! Much appreciated!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Deb Daniel

    how does one determine “connectedness” in brains?

    • JFoley1

      Two basic ways: looking at structure, or looking at “function” (activity, signals). Structure means patterns of physical links (how much axonal fiber tissue links different regions or how many links and synapses there are within a region) and “function” is, as in these study, patterns activity, ideally patterns of neural signals being sent, which can be measured various ways, here by fMRI.

  • Christine Miles

    If science does not yet understand how autism work, society in general will keep seeing it as a handicap. I’m probably talking way out of my league, but this seems like maybe the next evolution of human development? With it’s increasing prevalence, maybe in a few generations, the lack of autism maybe considered the handicap. Any thoughts?

    • Christine Miles

      Maybe I should restate as “the next development in human evolution”

      • David Roddy Andrews

        As the father of a nonverbal six year old daughter and someone who volunteers in the ever growing self contained autism classes of our public schools I can assure you it is a true disability. I celebrate the ones that are able to turn this challenge into genius but they are the exception not the rule. I do believe it is genetic but more likely brought on by something we did environmentally years ago and are now paying the price for.

        • Kesi

          if it gives you hope, Einstein didnt talk till he was I believe 5…your daughter isnt too far behind. As an aspie myself..I can say it is only a disability if you let it be….or are unable to combat it. For example..an asperger’s person is often able to percieve things many cannot..but someone with severe autism may never be able to talk or care for themselves….this does not mean they are unintelligent, it just means that the way they view the world is dramatically altered. I am aspergers myself..and I worked with a boy who could not talk intelligibly. he seemed unfocused and abstract but put him in front of a football video game..or ask him to write a short story and it quickly became clear he was smart in spite of, or perhaps because of his inability to speak on a ‘normal’ level..he made noises and he tried to communicate but his greatest skills were logic and writing.

          • Jody Schmidt

            The question of whether or not autism is a disability or an asset is pretty much up the same alley as bipolar and schizophrenia, and other mental ‘illnesses’ that have been correlated with greater creativity or, in the case of autism, mental focus/intellect:

            Bipolar may be an asset for the few artistic geniuses, such as Van Gogh and Kirchner, whose work embodies the bizarre beautiful unique outlook of their overly active, overly connected minds. But, it is a disability for just about everyone else who must live a conventional life and survive in a world often unfriendly toward them.

            Just so happens we are more tech obsessed than art obsessed at the current moment 2013, making ASD more the flavor of the week for the gifted-but-mentally-ill archetype that has been around since the early 1800s. But, that pendulum could easily swing back to bipolar/schizophrenia-equals-genius at any time, especially if a Picasso breaks onto the scene in the 21st century and, momentarily, at least, diverts everyone from the next iPhone to a new painterly style. Then, bipolar and schizophrenia will be the flavors of the week.

            And, then back again as soon as the next great tech wave hits! For the next 200 years, maybe! Cheers.

          • brendon

            I have always lived in a real world, with real jobs. It’s not as much of a disorder as people believe. Lets see, the real world that I’ve lived in, worked as a bartender through college with a3.8 gpa. Co-owned and helped start two businesses. Been an account executive at a mortgage company, along with other sales jobs, the list goes on and on of all the normal real world stuff i have lived. Believe me, there had been no genius art abilities or super technical knowledge, as a matter of fact, i can’t tell you three first thing about how to build a Web page or fix a computer. So, it’s far from true that there are only the disabled and those who are exceptional, there are done of us that do live in the real world, but because of how people Luke you perceive us, most of us would rather not tell you

          • m12345

            The reason they talk late, is not because they can’t talk, but because instead of blabbing about stuff, they are integrating it and trying to understand it.

            Then suddenly a bulb goes off in there head and all that information is understood and instantly you have a child genius that wants to explain all they know.

            That stage of being quiet I believe is vitally important to some people being geniuses.

          • Dee Feckitall Gillin

            Einstein was 3 when he first began talking. Not unusual with high functioning Auties. To give a parent “hope” by comparing his child to a possible Einstein is NOT helpful. And I say this as a parent of 2 Autistic boys.

        • Jen

          Early intervention is so important. I have seen my 9 year old son make such great strides, and he continues to surprise me and inspire me daily! All the hard intense work is helpful.

    • Stephen Daugherty

      Let me put in my two cents, since I’m on the spectrum.

      it can be a disability. It can also be a superability. Context is important. So is the social context. If you put somebody like me in a hostile environment, it can be very problematic. I think the genetic components of the traits are already part of the gene pool, and that what we see as the emergence of this disorder is a combination of these traits ending up in one person. it may not even be about one unique combination, but say a set of them from which the syndrome can occur.

      I’d say it’s less an advancement in and of itself, and more something that natural selection and other selective pressures may impose themselves on. Some parts of the traits may indeed become more normal as modern pressures force them, but other parts may be moderated, or even selected against, depending on the situation. And that all depends on whether the kind of information overload or associative behavior connected with today’s information networks remains the same, or whether they evolve into something more user friendly for people with more normal brains.

      I think it’s most useful to deal with evolution if you don’t assume that it’s a personified force tasked with improvement, but rather the emergent result of combining mutatable genetics with a world that alternatively penalizes and rewards certain combinations of expressed traits as they arise.

    • donniagw595

      my Aunty Alexis just
      got a stunning red Mercedes-Benz E-Class E63 AMG by working part time from the
      internet. why not find out more w­w­w.B­I­G­29.c­o­m

    • Barbara Breslin

      Christine, it certainly does matter where you fall on the spectrum, which, in my opinion is completely bogus. To suggest that people who are non-verbal, self injurious and incontinent (profound autism) are at all related to the likes of Bill Gates is ludicrous. Families dealing with severe or profound autism levels in their family members are living a Hell on earth. They are in denial to cope. Chances are siblings and spouses are suffering in silence.

      • Dee Feckitall Gillin

        Thank you!

  • Mohammed Athari

    fMRI studies are going to shatter DSM thinking into pieces.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Bruce Schratz

    This is exciting from the possibility of new strategies to treat/educate the children AUTISM!

    • Eventide Parfait

      Nullify the sounds from outside, let them stim to help them focus, and that’s a good way to let them access a classroom.

  • JFoley1

    Thanks for clarifying the difference between connected structure vs. connected activity. That distinction may be lost in the headline; the brains behave in a hyperconnected manner, and although the technical term for the subject of these studies (thanks for posting the links) is “functional connectivity,” the actual activity may be dysfunctional. That is, there may be many more signals sent around the brain, but these signals may conflict, not be inhibited/filtered when they should be, and this extra activity may not help signals related to sensation, movement, emotion, and mirroring the actions of other people, to be integrated well.

    The old insights shouldn’t be dismissed; at a structural level, It may still be true that at the level of axons, local areas of the brain are overconnected and links to separated areas of the brain have fewer neural axons to link them.
    What’s new and exciting here in my opinion is a possible explanation for people with ASD getting overwhelmed by too much complex stimuli; their brains are firing too much (the excitation/inhibition imbalance), making the brains look hyperconnected, but that hyperconnected activity is overwhelming, not helpful.

    • David Roddy Andrews

      this was post was very well put. sound logic.

      • JFoley1

        Thank you, nice of you to say. I always wonder if it’s worth commenting on pop psych articles. Today it is!

  • http://symmed.ru/ rada

    And if the computer system is wrong and equate to a healthy baby to the patient?

  • Jen

    I am curious to know if any of these children were on medication and if a comparison was done between medicated/non-medicated.

  • Paul Hardwick

    its not suprising to those living under the umbrella

  • wlrpaul

    TOXINS deliberately placed in the vaccines, look up the word “eugenics”.

  • Barbara Breslin

    Wake me when someone has a real, testable, provable, logical explanation to this puzzle. There’s no way that cleaning the diet up can be a bad thing, and more physical creative expression activities like dance and instrument instruction or physical activity in general can be a bad thing. Take this all with a grain of salt.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Teresa Thorne

    Disclaimer-I am not on the spectrum, but have studied Aspergers for
    several years in order to be as accurate as possible in giving
    characteristics to the central character in my novel (Noah’s Wife).
    Also, I understand that every person is individual and that there are
    vast differences in abilities and disabilities. That said, I wonder if
    the hyper-connectivity in the visual spectrum is connected in any way to
    Temple Grandin’s type of sensory thinking (which she calls “thinking in
    pictures.”) Could she experience an extreme end of this and some other
    people on the spectrum don’t realize or experience as completely visual
    as she does, but their brains have to translate from the visual to the
    audio for communication purposes? My uncle (who never spoke to me as a child) did have some form of autism or Aspergers and when I finally broke thru to being able to talk to him (as an adult), I had to wait long minutes for his response. Once he realized I would wait for him, we could talk.

  • kait

    You disgust me.

    • NOLA

      Have you been drinking ma’am?

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

D-brief

Briefing you on the must-know news and trending topics in science and technology today.
ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »