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More than 30,000 brain scientists are in Atlanta this week. They're attending the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. This year's meeting includes a lot of research on autism, and some of that research is based on a relatively new idea that autism may be caused by a brain that lacks coordination. NPR's Jon Hamilton reports.
JON HAMILTON: People with autism have trouble with social interactions, but Marcel Just at Carnegie Mellon University says that's just the most obvious sign of the disorder.
Dr. MARCEL JUST (Carnegie Mellon University): Some people think that autism is a disruption of social function, but I think it's much more widespread. It's a disruption of many kinds of behaviors that require good cortical coordination.
HAMILTON: In other words, coordination among various parts of the brain. For example, a conversation requires some areas of the brain to produce words. At the same time, Just says, other parts need to assess whether the listener understands those words. If those areas don't coordinate, no conversation. He says nothing important happens in only one part of the brain.
Dr. JUST: It's like the Internet. It's not one place. It's not Los Angeles, it's not Zurich - it's the network.
HAMILTON: Los Angeles and Zurich don't have a very good connection in people with autism, Just says. Now other scientists are weighing in. One of them is Michael Murias of the University of Washington. At the meeting in Atlanta, Murias presented a study that compared 18 adults who have autism spectrum disorder to 18 typical adults. All of them had electrodes attached to their scalps. Murias says the experiment itself was pretty easy.
Dr. MICHAEL MURIAS (University of Washington): We just instructed them to close their eyes and relax.
HAMILTON: Then Murias and his team measured brain waves called alpha waves to see whether certain areas in the brain were communicating. In people with autism, they weren't - at least not very well.
Dr. MURIAS: The degree of communication within the brain was diminished, particularly within the frontal lobes and particularly between the frontal lobes and the rest of the brain.
HAMILTON: Murias says that's important because of what the frontal lobes do. They're involved in so-called executive functions, which help us recognize another person's intentions and avoid antisocial behavior, but only when the frontal lobes are connected to other parts of the brain. In autism, the problem appears to be with the brain's connecting cables. Those cables are contained in what scientists call white matter. Marcel Just has been studying white matter using a technique called diffusion tensor imaging.
Dr. JUST: The quality of the white matter is lower in autism. It's less coherently organized.
HAMILTON: So Los Angeles can't talk to Zurich because the long-distance cables aren't very good. Just says that in autism, certain areas of the brain may adapt by becoming stronger and more independent.
Dr. JUST: You do the best you can with what you have. It's not sort of like a style preference or an aesthetic preference. You do what you can with what you have.
HAMILTON: That may explain why some people with autism can do complicated math in their head, but have no idea what they should pay for a turkey sandwich. Marcel Just says this line of research might eventually lead to drugs that could treat autism by improving the quality of white matter.
Dr. JUST: One can imagine also training or therapies that are designed to teach the various parts of the brain to work together in a more coordinated way, to make them function as a team rather than individual players.
HAMILTON: Just says those therapies might help people with autism to develop a more coordinated brain. The Society of Neuroscience meeting in Atlanta ends tomorrow. Jon Hamilton, NPR News.
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