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Autistic Brains are Less Flexible at Task Performance

Update Date: Jul 29, 2014 11:13 AM EDT

Children diagnosed with autism, which is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by social and communication deficiencies, have a harder time at taking on tasks then children without the condition, a new study found. The researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine found that autistic brains are less flexible when it comes to switching from rest to work.

"We wanted to test the idea that a flexible brain is necessary for flexible behaviors," said Lucina Uddin, PhD, a lead author of the study. "What we found was that across a set of brain connections known to be important for switching between different tasks, children with autism showed reduced 'brain flexibility' compared with typically developing peers."

For this study, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to observe the brains of 68 children with and without autism while they were performing two tasks. The first task involved solving simple mathematical problems. The second task required them to look at pictures of people's faces. The team focused on a network of brain areas that have been tied to decision making, performing social tasks and detecting events within the environment to help guide social behaviors.

The researchers found that autistic children performed similarly to their non-autistic counterparts on both tasks. However, the fMRIs revealed that children with autism had similar connections in these brain areas when their brains were resting and when they were performing a task. In children without the condition, their brains had increased brain connectivity when they were performing a task.

This finding suggests that autistic brains are less flexible in switching between the resting and working states. The researchers also found a positive correlation between the degree of inflexibility and the severity of restrictive and repetitive habits.

"This is the first study that has examined how the patterns of intrinsic brain connectivity change with a cognitive load in children with autism," senior author of the study, Vinod Menon, PhD, the Rachel L. and Walter F. Nichols, MD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford, said according to the press release. "We're making progress in identifying a brain basis of autism, and we're starting to get traction in pinpointing systems and signaling mechanisms that are not functioning properly. This is giving us a better handle both in thinking about treatment and in looking at change or plasticity in the brain."

The study was published in the journal, Cerebral Cortex.

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