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Autism Spectrum Disorders Health Center

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Out-of-Sync Brain May Be a Clue to Autism

Study Shows Toddlers With Autism Have Abnormal Synchronization in Brain's Communication Area
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

June 22, 2011 -- A brain that is out of sync may be an early clue of autism, researchers suggest.

Toddlers with autism are more likely to have abnormal synchronization between certain brain areas than other kids the same age, even those with language delays, according to a new study.

''There seems to be impaired or reduced synchronization between the right and left hemispheres, specifically the areas involved in language and communication," says researcher Ilan Dinstein, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel.

The study was done at the University of California, San Diego. It is published in the journal Neuron.

The researchers found only a link between the abnormality and autism, not cause and effect, Dinstein says. Still, the discovery may someday help experts develop tools to diagnose the condition earlier, he says.

Autism and autism spectrum disorder are a range of neurodevelopmental disorders marked by difficulties in social and communication skills and repetitive behavior. About one in 110 U.S. children are affected, according to CDC estimates.

Coordination of Brain's Tasks

Synchronization helps coordinate the brain's different tasks, Dinstein says. "Your brain is set up to do specific tasks." Some involve vision, for instance, or motor skills or decision making.

"While all these different parts are doing different things, they have to be coordinated," he says. For normal brain development, this coordination seems to be very important, he tells WebMD.

Other recent research on adults and teens with autism has found problems in this coordination, too, Dinstein says. That led them to look at younger subjects.

The researchers used functional MRIs (fMRIs) to evaluate 72 toddlers, ages 1 to 3.5, during sleep. Of the 72 participants, 29 had autism, 30 were typically developing, and 13 had language delays. The fMRIs were done while the children were in similar stages of sleep.

Compared to both other groups, those who had a diagnosis of autism had weaker correlations between hemispheres in two areas commonly linked with language production and comprehension. These areas are the inferior frontal gyrus and superior temporal gyrus.

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