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By imaging the brains of adolescents with a high-functioning form of autism as they played a social-interaction game, scientists have identified a physiological deficit specific to the disorder. The researchers believe that the change is linked to a diminished sense of self. The findings, recently published in the journal Neuron, could help guide future research into the nature of autism and potentially lead to new ways to diagnose and treat the disorder.

“I think this is an exciting advance,” says Uta Frith, a professor at University College London, in England, who wrote a preview of the paper for Neuron. Most studies find only subtle differences in people with high-functioning autism, “so it’s quite impressive to find such a big difference,” she says.

Autism is a complicated and heterogeneous developmental disorder marked by problems in language and social behavior. No medical tests exist to detect the disorder, so children are typically diagnosed based on doctors’ observations. Scientists are avidly searching for more objective markers of autism, but identifying specific brain abnormalities has been a challenge.

Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston, believe that they have now identified a specific physiological marker of the disorder. Read Montague, Pearl Chiu, and their colleagues scanned the brains of adolescents with Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism, while they played an interactive trust game.

In the game, one person, designated the investor, chooses an amount of money to send to a second player, the trustee. The money is tripled en route, and the trustee must then decide how much to give back to the investor. When played by normal volunteers, the game unfolds in a very characteristic fashion: generous gestures are met with generous responses, while selfish ones inspire selfishness in return.

Brain activity also follows a stereotyped pattern. A study by Montague and his colleagues. published in 2006, imaged the brains of both the investor and the trustee as they played the game. The researchers discovered a specific signal in the cingulate cortex, part of the brain that integrates information from both the cortex and the body, that was detected only when the investor thought about how much money to give the trustee. A second signal was seen only when the investor received his or her return from the trustee. “We see a ‘self, other, self, other’ pattern,” says Montague, director of the Human Neuroimaging Lab at Baylor. “We think that’s an unconscious assessment of who the actions should be attributed to.”

According to the new findings, people with Asperger’s play the game just as a nonautistic person would, but they lack the characteristic “self” signal in the brain. Normal people lack the signal only when they think that they are playing against a computer, suggesting that autistic people view interactions with other people similarly to the way that normal people think about interacting with a computer. “This approach allows a somewhat objective look at something hopelessly subjective–sense of self,” says John Gabrieli, a neuroscientist at MIT.

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Credit: Tomlin et al., Science, 2006.

Tagged: Biomedicine, neuroscience, autism

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