Autism study shows hyper-connected brains in children

Emily Bourke 8 Nov 2013

PETER LLOYD: American medical researchers have uncovered some surprising findings about children with autism.

It's been thought for some time that autism could be the result of a brain that lacks enough neural connections - but new research has found the opposite. Brains of children with autism actually have more connections than other children.

That's turned some of the conventional medical wisdom about autism on its head and it could lead to changes to the way the condition is diagnosed and treated.

Emily Bourke has our story

EMILY BOURKE: For some time, medical researchers have been divided over the causes and characteristics of autism in the brain.

There have been two competing theories on whether children with autism have more, or weaker, neural connections.

But researchers from Stanford and San Diego State Universities have performed MRI scans on 120 children.

And in turn they've added some weight to the theory of over-connectivity in the brains of autistic children.

KAUSTUBH SUPEKAR: This is completely, very, very surprising finding because most of the researchers have found previously that the disorder has less connections.

EMILY BOURKE: Kaustubh Supekar is a research fellow at Stanford University.

KAUSTUBH SUPEKAR: To again test the finding more, we basically looked at other data sets, and we collaborated with the US Department of Health as well as other colleagues at Georgetown, to make sure that that what we found is true. And we actually found that it's really true - in all these three data sets we found that the children had more connections compared to their typically developing peers.

EMILY BOURKE: He says the hyper-connections explain the restrictive and repetitive behaviour of autistic children.

KAUSTUBH SUPEKAR: It's very difficult for a hyper-connected brain to shift attention to a different task, for example if you are playing computers you keep on doing it and you ignore everything else, so you're sort of in a hyper-connected state in whatever you're doing.

EMILY BOURKE: And he says the findings raise questions about the social behaviours of children with autism.

KAUSTUBH SUPEKAR: So one of the things which we are trying to do is try to associate the hyper-connectivity of the social dysfunction, and one of the hypothesis is children with autism are not rewarded by social interactions as normal human beings do. And that's a reason maybe they don't show empathy, because the most important thing for social interaction is reward, so it's quite possible that the circuits are in such a hyper-connected state, they don't feel like rewarded by a social interaction and that's a reason they show lack of empathy.

ANDREW WHITEHOUSE: I think the most important aspect of this finding is that they found that more connections in the brain in kids with autism actually was related to more severe symptoms and that's a really important finding because what it is doing is connecting the neuroscience with the behaviour and that is so important with autism.

EMILY BOURKE: Andrew Whitehouse is Professor of child development at the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research.

ANDREW WHITEHOUSE: The genetic revolution, the neuroscience revolution has taken off and we're living in the hey-day of these fields.

We will find the answers behind autism, there is nothing surer, and this is definitely another important finding in the field. What these studies do is put another couple of balls in the basket for the over-connectivity hypothesis and I think that what we can do now is really start trying to translate these laboratory studies into our clinic to help people with autism live the most fulfilling life possible.

EMILY BOURKE: Stanford University research fellow Kaustubh Supekar says the findings will have real world applications.

KAUSTUBH SUPEKAR: Because right now most of the diagnosis happens through you know subjective evaluation and ideally we want, like can we use these patterns, which we observed, the hyper-connectivity patterns to actually develop a brain-based biomarker which can be used for diagnosis of the thing.

And on the treatment side, it's an amazing finding because in a treatment side 30 per cent of children with autism have epilepsy and epilepsy is characterised by hyper-connected brain, so what we think is it's quite possible, but speculation at this point, is can we use the drugs which are used to treat epilepsy to treat autism.

EMILY BOURKE: The research has been published in the journal Cell Reports.

PETER LLOYD: Emily Bourke.