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Office of Neuroscience Research > WUSTL Neuroscience News > Brain network connections may underlie social behavior linked to autism

Brain network connections may underlie social behavior linked to autism

From the WUSTL Newsroom...

Evaluating the strength of connections in the brain is one avenue researchers have been exploring to help identify children at risk for autism spectrum disorder earlier in life.

Now, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, with colleagues from the multicenter Infant Brain Imaging Study (IBIS) network, have found associations between brain connectivity and a key social behavior that is a central feature of autism. If it becomes possible to identify children with autism spectrum disorder earlier in life, such knowledge could jump-start efforts to begin therapies that might help improve a child’s language and social skills.

The findings are published online in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

The new study from the IBIS network involved scientists at Washington University, the University of North Carolina, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Washington.

The researchers used functional MRI scans to identify brain networks involved in a phenomenon called initiation of joint attention. It occurs when a baby sees an object in his or her environment, such as a dog, a car or a ball, focuses on that object and — by pointing and/or shifting gaze — gets someone else to focus on that object. This behavior has been linked to language development and is impaired in children with autism spectrum disorder.

“By the time most children are diagnosed with autism, they are 4 ½, but in studying the brains of younger children, we have found neural activity that may allow for earlier diagnosis, and that, in turn, may allow us to begin treatment sooner,” said John R. Pruett Jr., MD, PhD, co-senior author and an associate professor of child psychiatry at Washington University. “We’re excited to link aspects of joint attention behavior to the functional architecture of the brain. This study represents the first time that has been done in children at an age when joint attention abilities are actually developing.”

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