MRI results suggest that brain connections within white matter regions in people with autism are more symmetrical across both hemispheres than in their typically developing peers. Courtesy of Ralph-Axel Mueller

A study conducted by San Diego State University researchers shows brain connections are more evenly distributed between hemispheres in people with autism than others.

The study, which was released this month, involved 85 children and adolescents between the ages of 7 and 18 years—41 participants with autism and 44 without.

In those without autism, the left hemisphere of the brain analyzes details while the right hemisphere integrates all information.

But in people with autism, the two hemispheres of the brain are less likely to specialize.

Researchers say the new findings — which were published in the December issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry — offer insight into how brain development in people with autism contributes to the disorder’s cognitive characteristics.

“This information adds to what we already suspected,” said Ralph-Axel Müller, professor of psychology and researcher at SDSU’s Brain Development Imaging Lab. “We’re putting another brick into what is a pretty strong and well-replicated finding.”

He led the study alongside Ruth Carper and Jeffrey Treiber.

Müller said the two hemispheres of a brain typically have a speciality, allowing the brain to work more efficiently. However, people with autism have difficulty integrating information because of the symmetry between both hemispheres.

That lack of specialization could manifest itself in what Müller calls “weak central coherence”—a concept best summed up in the idiom, “not seeing the forest for the trees.” Many people with autism are very good at seeing details but have difficulty putting it all together into a cohesive narrative, he said.

The findings, which were conducted with the help of magnetic resonance imaging scans, take scientists one step closer to better treating autism, said Müller, who led the study.

“That’s ultimately the goal, of course,” Müller said. “The ultimate goal is to find out more how the different types of neurobiological autism can be characterized and explained, which, in turn, will give us an idea of how they can be treated.”

But more research still needs to be conducted, he said.

“We know there are hundreds of thousands of genes that cause autism,” Müller said. “But we have no clear idea how it affects brain development. We understand there isn’t one single explanation. There may be hundreds of explanations.”

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