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'Resting' autism brains still hum with activity

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Maia Szalavitz
21 February 2014

Even at rest, the brains of people with autism manage more information than those of their peers, according to a new study that may provide support for the so-called ‘intense world’ theory of autism.

The research, which was published 24 December in Frontiers in Neuroinformatics, included nine children with Asperger syndrome, aged between 6 and 14 and ten age-matched typical children. The researchers scanned their brains using magnetoencephalography (MEG), a noninvasive method that doesn’t require lying in a noisy, confined space as magnetic resonance imaging does.

That method was important for this study because the researchers wanted to capture the brain’s activity when it was receiving as little external stimulation as possible. During the data collection, the children were in a magnetically shielded room, with the MEG recording device over their heads.

The children had to lie still with their eyes open. That raises the question of whether their brains were actually at rest — but Galan says even if the children weren’t completely without external stimulation, the results suggest that in the same boring situation, people with autism process more information than their typical peers.

“Our results fit very well with the intense world theory, which describes autism as a disorder resulting from hyperfunctioning neural circuitry, which leads to a state of over-arousal,” says lead researcher Roberto Galan, assistant professor of neuroscience at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.

‘Information’ is defined scientifically as the level of mathematical complexity of a signal, Galan says. Using a computational model, the study found that under the same conditions, the children with autism on average showed a 42 percent higher information gain than the controls did.

Samuel Schwarzkopf, a research fellow in cognitive, perceptual and brain sciences at University College London, questions whether the results indicate more intense sensory perception from outside — supporting the intense world theory — or indicate that the brains of the children with autism internally generate more information. “I think [Galan’s] main interpretation is highly speculative,” Schwarzkopf says.

Schwarzkopf has a study in the 12 February issue of The Journal of Neuroscience that offers only partial support for the intense world view. Using functional MRI on 15 adults with Asperger syndrome and 12 age-matched controls, he and his colleagues found that the visual cortex of the participants with autism responds more strongly to visual stimulation than that of controls do, which could make their sensory experience more intense.

However, the study did not find better visual perception in participants with autism than in controls, questioning the hypothesis that a superior ability to detect small differences is what creates an overly intense experience of the world.

News and Opinion articles on SFARI.org are editorially independent of the Simons Foundation.

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Comments

Name: ASD Dad
22 February 2014 - 2:32AM

This research speaks to neurological instability or imbalance. If one looks at the wide ranging research undertaken surrounding epilepsy and autism then this may be seen as part of a continuum in neurological severity of an underlying deficit in neurodevelopment perhaps chained to the immune system.

Name: Harold L Doherty
23 February 2014 - 12:27AM

This research involves the brains of some persons with Aspergers. The 50% of the autism spectrum (World Health Organization, September 2013) with intellectual disabilities are not represented by the results of this study and the title and article should indicate that fact instead of describing the brains of the study participants as "autism" brains.

Name: Liz
26 February 2014 - 1:20PM

Amen! We cannot speak of autisms, recognize heterogeneity and still apply results of 9 kids with Aspergers to the entire spectrum. How is that science? We have to be better at specifying populations in findings and titles or we will continue to pile up seemingly conflicting and therefore useless data.

Name: John Rourke
23 February 2014 - 10:28AM

Since being diagnosed with HFA or Asperger's I have been assisted by two psychologists. I have endeavoured to explain in very rudimentary terms that I wish I could turn my brain off. Like a movie projector that is permanently ON. ..... so the above article, to me, is no great surprise. Cheers.

Name: Les
26 February 2014 - 4:00AM

I would describe my Aspergers brain as a pinball machine. I endeavor to slow it down sometimes, but sleep and relaxation only opens up more opportunities for the mental cartwheels to continue unabated. I can sometimes identify five or six channels processing and transmitting simultaneously. This may sound like intelligence, but the result tends to be confusion and memory loss. 'Course I'm an adult and not severely autistic, so that's just me.

Name: Mindy
26 February 2014 - 7:22AM

I thought Asperger's was not a valid diagnosis anymore. Are they really using this term still in a study? Interesting though.

Name: Courtney
26 February 2014 - 11:02AM

Mindy,
Although Asperger's was combined into the Autism diagnosis, individuals diagnosed prior to this change maintain their Asperger's diagnosis unless those individuals undergo an additional evaluation. Also, when the study was performed, there would not have been a pool of candidates for the study with an Autism diagnosis due to the timing of the changes.

Name: Dana Mulvany
26 February 2014 - 6:01PM

Previous research of intellectually gifted people showed their brains appeared less active than those of normals, suggesting more efficient cognitive processing. Possibly people on the spectrum have more activity because their brains have difficulty coordinating and processing sensory input and other kinds of input, which causes their brains to work harder even during periods of little to no stimulation.

Name: Atiya
27 February 2014 - 8:32AM

Aspergers is still value in the ICD regardless of changes in the DSM. When people identify as an "Aspie," as some like to say, the DSM does not affect your identity.

I concur with whomever questioned how this study was science. Since when does such a small pool make this representative of the entire spectrum that this is worth reporting?

Name: Roberto Galan
4 March 2014 - 9:56PM

We, as authors of the first study cited in the article above, would like to clarify a few things that seem to be creating some confusion. Here is a brief summary of our recent findings (PLoS One 8(4):e61493 and Frontiers in Neuroinformatics 7(37):1):

1) Brain activity at rest is accurately described by a universal mathematical model.

2) Fitting the data to that model allows us to estimate not only the functional brain connectivity (the interactions between areas recorded by different sensors), but also the input to the brain network (the component of the recorded activity that cannot be accounted for by the influence between areas).

3) The spatial input distribution in autism is very homogeneous and quite different from the control case (Fig. 7 in PLoS One paper).

4) Since we can estimate the brain input from the brain output (i.e. from the recorded activity) we can measure <b>how much information of the brain output cannot be accounted for by the information contained in the input</b>. This is technically called the information gain, and measures the amount of information created by the “device” (in this case the brain) for which the input and output are known.

In our last paper we showed that autistic brains on average create more information compared to controls. Just to clarify: <b>these results are hard data; they are objective facts</b>. Our interpretation, which is by definition subjective, is that the excessive information created by the autistic brain at rest reflects more introspection and a more intense world, consistent with the classical idea that autism correlates with excessive withdrawal into self, and supporting the “Intense World Theory” of autism too. Our results, however, do not support the underconnectivity hypothesis, at least in the brain at rest. In fact, we see stronger functional interactions between frontal and parietal areas in the autistic brain than in control (Fig. 5 in PLoS One paper). We cannot rule out that this is due to methodological differences between the stimulated brain and the resting brain.

Roberto F. Galán & José Luis Pérez Velázquez

Name: Peter Miles
14 March 2014 - 5:37PM

I have to re-iterate the comments made above by Harold L Doherty and Liz. This is a study exclusive to Asperger's subjects. Those familiar with the classic lower functioning autism will realize that this type of study is significantly more difficult to manage in most other ASM types. As a result of the difficulties of studying lower functioning ASD and the relative ease of studying Asperger's subjects there is developing a paucity of data on the former vs the latter. The end result of this in terms of media coverage is the general public's perception of autism being exclusively that of Asperger's. The follow on from this is that opportunities such as those announced by the SAP corporation of their willingness to "hire autistic persons" is mis-represented as benefiting the autism community as a whole. The concern is that many in the autism community will become underserved because the general public believe that there are already good programs in place for them.
This, in no way, is to detract from the benefits of this study nor diminish the difficulties experienced by those with Asperger's, but to get the study into a better perspective for the general public. An interesting analogy would be to develop a program for eliminating child mal-nutrition in South America and hailing it as the program that would eliminate child mal-nutrition world-wide. A worthwhile cause and one in which much can be learned and re-applied but non the less limited in scope.

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