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Tuesday, 12 February, 2002, 12:51 GMT
Differences found in autistic brains
People with autism can be withdrawn
Researchers have identified structural differences in the brain of people with autism that may explain why they have problems communicating and socialising.

The scientists used computerised imaging techniques to pinpoint differences in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain.

Autism is a developmental disability that affects the way a person communicates and interacts with other people.

it might lead to an understanding of how to help these individuals

National Autistic Society
People with autism cannot relate to others in a meaningful way. They also have trouble making sense of the world at large.

As a result, their ability to develop friendships is impaired. They also have a limited capacity to understand other people's feelings.

The scientists examined brain tissue from nine autistic patients and nine people who did not have the condition.

They focused on structures within the brain known as cell minicolumns which play an important role in the way the brain takes in information and responds to it.

The cell minicolumns of autistic patients were found to be significantly smaller, but there were many more of them.

Researcher Dr Manuel Casanova said the increased amount of cell minicolumns in autistic people could mean that they are constantly in a state of overarousal.

Their poor communication skills could be an attempt to diminish this arousal.

Brainstem damage

Previous research has suggested that autism is linked to damage to a part of the brain called the brainstem in the early stages of development.

It is thought that this early injury might somehow interfere with the proper development or wiring of other brain regions resulting in the behavioural symptoms of autism.

A spokesperson for the UK National Autistic Society said the new research was consistent with this theory.

"If the ability for complex communication is due to the subtle wiring of the millions of minicolumns found throughout the brain then any early impairments in development could explain the difficulties faced by people with autism spectrum disorders in the world.

"Potentially it might lead to an understanding of how to help these individuals although this is a long way off.

Certainly the study reported is consistent with what is known about the difficulties people with autism spectrum disorders face in processing information."

The frontal lobe of the brain is concerned with reasoning, planning, parts of speech and movement, emotions, and problem-solving.

The temporal lobe is concerned with perception and recognition of sounds and memory.

The new research was carried out by scientists at the Medical College of Georgia, the University of South Carolina, and the Downtown VA Medical Center in Augusta, Georgia.

It is reported in Neurology, the scientific journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

The BBC's Paul Moss analyses the increase in autism
"A rather agnostic approach seems to be emerging in the public"
See also:

26 Jun 01 | Health
Autism 'may have quadrupled'
25 Apr 01 | Health
Possible autism test for newborns
04 Apr 01 | A-B
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