MRIs link impaired brain activity to inability to regulate emotions in autism

Posted on January 28, 2015

The yellow areas represent a composite of fMRI scans showing the areas of the prefrontal cortexes that are significantly less active in people with autism during emotion regulation.

Tantrums, irritability, self-injury, depression, anxiety. These symptoms are associated with autism, but they’re not considered core symptoms of the disorder. Researchers from the UNC School of Medicine are challenging this assertion. They have used functional MRI to show that - when it comes to the ability to regulate emotions - brain activity in autistic people is significantly different than brain activity in people without autism.

The findings, published online today in the Journal of Autism Developmental Disorder as part of a special issue on emotion regulation, suggest that improving prefrontal cortex activity could directly help autistic people regulate their emotions and improve serious symptoms associated with the disorder, which affects millions of people in the United States.

The discovery shows that "emotion regulation" symptoms have a biological explanation that can be visualized using fMRI. The symptoms do not seem to be merely associated with or a result of the core autism symptoms, which include repetitive behaviors, verbal and non-verbal communications problems, difficulties with social interactions, and other cognitive issues.

Gabriel Dichter, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and psychology and senior author of the paper, said, "This research adds to the growing awareness that although autism is diagnosed on the basis of social impairment and repetitive behaviors, the importance of emotion regulation and all the behaviors that come with it - depression, tantrums, meltdowns, irritability - are very real and should be a focus of clinical services."

"Any parent of a child with autism knows that these symptoms can be pervasive," added Dichter, who is a member of the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities. "Children with autism often lack the ability to cope with difficult emotional situations that result in meltdowns and tantrums."

There are only two FDA-approved medications to treat autism and neither treats core symptoms; they treat high rates of irritability and aggression. "We've known for a while that we need to pay attention to emotion regulation in people with autism," Dichter said, "but we think these data suggest a neural basis for these problems and add credence to their ubiquity as core features of the disorder."

Dichter's team found a correlation between the level of brain activity in the prefrontal cortex and the severity of a person's autism. "There does seem to be an association between the ability to bring these brain regions online as needed during emotional situations and the severity of a person's autism symptoms," Dichter said.


Category(s):Autism spectrum disorders

Source material from University of North Carolina Chapel School of Medicine


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