A new brain-imaging study could help explain why children with autism have
difficulty with verbal communication: They may not get much pleasure from the
Researchers found that those with the disorder showed weaker connections
between the brain's voice-processing areas and its "reward" centers compared to
That suggests that kids with autism do not get the same pleasure from the
human voice that typically developing children do, researchers said.
"When we speak, we don't only convey information, we convey emotion and
social cues," said Daniel Abrams, a researcher at Stanford University in Palo
Alto, Calif., who led the new study.
It's well known that children with autism have difficulty reading those cues
and having conversations. And children with more severe autism may be completely
indifferent to the sound of the human voice. There are competing theories on why that is, Abrams said. "One theory is
that, although these children have normal hearing, there's a problem in the
brain's sound processing," he explained.
Another theory is that "social cues," including other people's speech, don't
hit the brain's reward system in the typical way. "Our findings support this
idea," Abrams said. "There may be some deficit in the brain circuitry related to
The findings are based on a type of brain imaging called functional MRI,
which allows researchers to measure brain activity by watching changes in blood
The investigators took scans of 20 children who were on average 10 years old
and had "high-functioning" autism: all had normal IQs and speaking and reading
skills, but had trouble conversing and grasping "emotional cues" in other
people's voices. The researchers also scanned 19 kids without autism who were in
the same age and IQ range.
The researchers found that the children with autism showed a weaker
connection between an area of the brain that responds to the human voice and two
other brain regions that release the "feel-good" chemical dopamine in response
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.
The next step
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 US kids aged 6
to 17, according to the US 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 behavioural
paediatrics 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
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
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
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 socialising 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.
Learn more about autism
from the US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.