Brain activity patterns may distinguish girls with autism

BY ANGIE VOYLES ASKHAM FOR SPECTRUM NEWS

Autistic and non-autistic girls’ brains differ in activity in a way that autistic and non-autistic boys’ brains do not, according to a new study. This sex difference may stem from distinct patterns of gene expression during early development.

The new findings lend support to the idea that autism has sex-specific biological roots. Such a difference may help explain the lower prevalence of autism in girls — and compound a diagnostic bias that leads some clinicians to overlook girls with the condition.

Gaining a better understanding of what autism looks like in girls — from their brain activity to the traits they express — might help clinicians identify autistic girls more readily and eliminate some of that bias, says co-lead investigator Allison Jack, assistant professor of psychology at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

Autistic and non-autistic boys’ brains respond differently to videos of moving dots that give the impression of ‘biological motion,’ such as a person walking, according to a 2016 study. The new study used the same videos to detect brain activity differences between autistic and non-autistic girls.

Light bright:

The team scanned the brains of 45 autistic girls and 47 autistic boys, and equal numbers of non-autistic boys and girls, as the children watched the videos. The participants ranged in age from 8 to 17 years and are part of the GENDAAR study, a multisite project focusing on sex differences in autism.

“Everything was lighting up” in the non-autistic girls’ brains, Jack says, whereas autistic girls’ brains weren’t as widely activated. The difference was particularly noticeable in sensorimotor regions and in part of the striatum — a brain area involved in processing social reward.

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