Autism May Involve Limited Awareness of Self

As the prevalence of autism continues to rise—for reasons that are still unknown—researchers are frantically trying to understand the disorder. Autism consists of a spectrum of behaviors, such as repetitive or ritualistic behavior, self-injury, impaired language ability, and limited communication skills. One of the most commonly held views on autism has been that those who are afflicted have a decreased capacity to feel empathy, or to understand that other people have their own mental states, desires, and intentions. Neuroimaging studies with autistic individuals have seemed to support this idea.

Other studies have indicated there is a diminished ability to recognize self in the autistic mind as well. A neuroimaging study released this week supports that hypothesis. The experiment used fMRI and a relatively new technique called hyperscanning to measure brain activity of autistic and non-autistic adolescents as they played an interactive game together. Hyperscanning is an imaging method that allows multiple people to be scanned with fMRI simultaneously as they communicate with one another.

The researchers compared the fMRI images to images they had taken of athletes’ brains as they imagined themselves taking part in athletic activities. They found this focus on “self” caused high activity in the cingulate cortex, an area previously implicated in self-awareness and social interaction. This area was also highly activated in the non-autistic participants in the game as they thought about what action they would take. It contrasted with a different pattern of activity that occurred when they thought about the actions of their partner. Although the autistic participants were able to play the game effectively, they showed much lower levels of stimulation in the cingulate cortex. The activity was also negatively correlated with the severity of their autistic symptoms (the more severe the symptoms the lower the activity).

All of the autistic participants in the study were considered high functioning, with normal or high normal intelligence quotients. The research group plans to conduct more imaging experiments in the future with autistic individuals who have lower IQs. For now, this experiment may shed more light on the brain mechanisms underlying autism. It also adds more complexity to the problem, however, as it appears a deficit in the awareness of others may not be all that’s involved.