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Autism Spectrum Disorders Health Center

Kids With Autism May Find Human Voice Unpleasant

MRI shows weaker connection to brain's reward center in those who have high-functioning autism
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On top of that, there was a weaker link between the brain's voice processors and the amygdala -- a brain region involved in emotion, including the ability to perceive emotional cues from others.

An expert not involved in the work said the findings give more insight into the underpinnings of autism, which affects an estimated one in 50 U.S. kids aged 6 to 17, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"This is an elegant approach to using neuroimaging to better understand [autism]," said Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Steven and Alexandra Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York, in New Hyde Park.

What's unclear, Adesman added, is whether the impaired brain connectivity is actually a cause of the children's difficulties with conversations and socializing.

He noted that it's "likely" that weaker brain connections came first, but there's no way to tell for sure from this study.

"The natural next step," Adesman added, "is to try to replicate these findings in further studies, and to expand the research to include younger kids."

Adesman said he does not see the findings as being "immediately" useful in terms of autism therapies or diagnosis (such as using functional MRI scans to spot connectivity problems in the brain).

But, according to Abrams and colleagues, the findings lend some support to autism therapies already in use.

One example is known as pivotal-response training, which tries to motivate kids who can speak but do not usually converse with others, to engage in more "social" talk.

One limit of the study is that all of the children with autism were "high-functioning." But autism is considered a "spectrum" disorder whose effects range widely: Some people have mild problems socializing but have normal to above-normal intelligence; others have profound difficulties relating to others, and may have intellectual impairment as well.

It's not certain, Abrams said, that the same brain connectivity patterns would be seen across the autism spectrum.

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