Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Networking autism

A new American study, using network analysis may help in understanding some classic behaviors in autism.

A look at how the brain processes information finds a distinct pattern in children with autism spectrum disorders. Using EEGs to track the brain’s electrical cross-talk, researchers from Boston Children’s Hospital have found a structural difference in brain connections. Compared with neurotypical children, those with autism have multiple redundant connections between neighboring brain areas at the expense of long-distance links.



Peters, Taquet and senior authors Simon Warfield, PhD, of the Computational Radiology Laboratory and Mustafa Sahin, MD, PhD, of Neurology, analyzed EEG recordings from two groups of autistic children: 16 children with classic autism, and 14 children whose autism is part of a genetic syndrome known as tuberous sclerosis complex (TSC). They compared these readings with EEGs from two control groups—46 healthy neurotypical children and 29 children with TSC but not autism. In both groups with autism, there were more short-range connections within different brain region, but fewer connections linking far-flung areas. A brain network that favors short-range over long-range connections seems to be consistent with autism’s classic cognitive profile—a child who excels at specific, focused tasks like memorizing streets, but who cannot integrate information across different brain areas into higher-order concepts. For example, a child with autism may not understand why a face looks really angry, because his visual brain centers and emotional brain centers have less cross-talk. The brain cannot integrate these areas. It’s doing a lot with the information locally, but it’s not sending it out to the rest of the brain.

The most popular autistic character of the silver screen is Raymond Babbitt from Rain Man, a true savant with amazing memory and mathematical skills, but an incapability to change adaption. A cinematic fun fact: the real life human being and inspiration to his character Kim Peek was suffering from another disorder than autism.

Network analysis—a hot emerging branch of cognitive neuroscience—showed a quality called “resilience” in the children with autism—the ability to find multiple ways to get from point A to point B through redundant pathways. Much like you can still travel from Boston to Brussels even if London Heathrow is shut down, by going through New York’s JFK airport for example, information can continue to be transferred between two regions of the brain of children with autism. In such a network, no hub plays a specific role, and traffic may flow along many redundant routes. It’s a simpler, less specialized network that’s more rigid, less able to respond to stimulation from the environment.

 
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