Study Shows Autistic Brain More Active at Rest

brainA study published in the December issue of Frontiers in Neuroinformatics shows that the brains of children with autism generate an average of 42% more information at rest than the brains of typically developing children. These findings suggest that the social withdrawal characteristic of autism may be due to the inherent busyness of the individual’s brain.

The researchers quantified subject’s brain activity recorded with magnetoencephalography (MEG), comparing the amount of activity each brain generated when at rest. They also quantified interactions between brain regions to determine the brain’s functional connectivity. Roberto Fernandez Galan, Phd., senior author and associate professor of neurosciences at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine says

“Our results suggests that autistic children are not interested in social interactions because their brains generate more information at rest, which we interpret as more introspection in line with early descriptions of the disorder.”

brainThese findings support the “Intense World Theory” of autism proposed by neuroscientists Henry and Kamila Markram of the Brain Mind Institute of Switzerland. According to this theory, hyper-functional neural circuitry in the brain causes a state of over-arousal, leading to self-soothing, withdrawing behaviors. In other words, people with autism withdraw in order to protect themselves from a world that can be overwhelming emotionally. It opposes the theory that individuals with autism lack empathy – instead, they suffer from too much empathy.

“There are those who say autistic people don’t feel enough,” says Kamila Markram. “We’re saying exactly the opposite: They feel too much.”

The Intense World Theory has been embraced by many in the neurodiversity movement, who agree that it reflects their personal experiences. One individual posted the following on WrongPlanet.net, a web site for people with ASD,

“If anything, I struggle with having too much empathy. If someone else is upset, I am upset. There were times during school when other people were misbehaving, and if the teacher scolded them, I felt like they were scolding me.”

Another said,

“I am clueless when it come to reading subtle cues, but I am very empathic. I can walk into a room and feel what everyone else is feeling, and I think this is actually quite common in AS/autism. The problem is that it all comes in faster than I can process it.”

Markram adds

“These children really not unemotional, they do want to interact. It’s just difficult for them. It’s quite sad, because these are quite capable people but the world is just too intense, so they have to withdraw.”

The results of this study, combined with the responses from individuals on the autism spectrum, suggest that the tendency to avoid social interaction is not due to an inherent dislike of other people or of socializing in general, but rather a function of overstimulation due to the high activity already present in an individual’s brain. It also suggests that interventions that focus on reducing input and slowing down social cues may be useful in helping people with autism.