Research undertaken at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) has led to the discovery of the brain region that underpins social deficit in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), it was announced today.
The international team of scientists is comprised of researchers from Trinity, Switzerland (ETH Zürich), and the UK (Oxford University and Royal Holloway). Their research is focused on the part of the brain that is responsible for tracking expectations and outcomes of other people’s choices. They have identified differences in brain activity in this region in people with an ASD, that explain why they may fail to respond appropriately to unexpected situations.
The researchers found that an area of the brain called the gyrus of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACCg) typically signals when something surprising takes place. However, individuals with ASD lack this response.
Both individuals with an ASD and those without an ADS were examined as part of the research. They were instructed to think about the outcomes of their own decisions, the outcomes of someone else’s decisions, and the outcomes of decisions made by a computer while being scanned in an MRI machine. In instances where the outcomes of someone else’s decisions were surprising, a disparity in brain signals was observed.
Dr Joshua Henk Balsters, who lead the research team, explained what this difference could mean: “The ACCg signals when something surprising happens to other people. We found that individuals with an ASD are less accurate at identifying other people’s expectations, but they also lack the typical response in the ACCg when surprising things happen to other people.”
Considering that brain responses in the ACCg correspond to social deficits in ASD, it is hope that this research will lead to ACCg become a new therapeutic target. Dr Balsters went on to say that future research will focus on using pharmaceuticals or neurofeedback training to increase or decrease activity in this brain area with a view to complement existing behavioural therapies and improve social interaction.