Study: Autism Affects Entire Brain

Autism child science medicine
CBS/AP
New research is challenging the long-held belief that autism affects only those regions of the brain that control social interaction, communication, and reasoning — suggesting, instead, that the disorder affects the entire brain.

The government-funded study found that even highly functioning autistic children had difficulty when asked to perform a wide range of complex tasks involving other areas of the brain.

This suggests different parts of the autistic brain have difficulty working together to process complex information. This may be the driving component of autism, the researchers say.

The study was funded, in part, by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) of the National Institutes of Health.

"These findings suggest that a further understanding of autism will likely come not from the study of factors affecting one brain area or system, but from the study of factors affecting many systems," says NICHD director Duane Alexander, M.D.

Earlier Findings In Adults

Autistic children and adults typically have problems with social interactions and verbal and nonverbal communications. They tend to exhibit repetitive behaviors or narrow, obsessive interests. These three behaviors are the basis of the diagnosis of autism.

It is increasingly clear, however, that other areas of brain function are affected as well, including balance, movement and memory.

In earlier research, Nancy J. Minshew, M.D., and colleagues offered evidence to support the whole-brain hypothesis in studies looking at autistic adults. The autistic adults they tested had difficulty performing certain complex tasks that involved different areas of the brain working together.

In the newly published study, the research team compared highly functioning autistic children to non-autistic children with similar IQs and ages in an effort to confirm their findings in adults.

All the children in this study were aged 8 to 15, all had IQs of 80 or above, and all could speak, read and write.