Disrupted Neural Synchronization in Toddlers with Autism

Published June 23, 2011 in Neuron

A study of sleeping toddlers identified patterns of abnormal neural activity that could aid in the early

diagnosis of autism and help to understand underlying causes. Using functional magnetic resonance

imaging (fMRI), researchers found that 72 percent of children with ASD showed decreased

synchronization across brain hemispheres in areas commonly associated with language and

communication. This decreased synchronization was rarely seen in typically developing children, or

those with delayed language development who did not have autism. Strong synchronization between

the right and left hemisphere of the brain is critical for proper functioning, and there is evidence of

disrupted synchronization in neurological disorders such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease.

While disrupted synchronization has been documented in adults with autism, researchers had been

unable to study the phenomenon in early childhood because toddlers cannot remain still long enough to

undergo a brain scan when awake. Researchers were able to overcome this challenge by performing

scans on sleeping children; neurons remain synchronized between regions of the brain with similar

function even while resting. The brain scans revealed that weak neural synchronicity is evident in the

early stages of autism and that the strength of synchronization is linked to the degree of the child’s

symptoms — children with the weakest neural synchronization exhibit the most severe impairments. The

researchers note that measures of neural synchronization could one day play a role in early autism

diagnosis, particularly because the measure can be taken while the child sleeps.

–IACC 2011 Summary of Advances in ASD Research


Filed under: