The anterior prefrontal cortex (aPFC) is a neurological region that affects a person’s ability to interpret others’ emotions. This area also influences attention and social expression. For people with autism (ASD) the aPFC has been shown to be impaired when compared to individuals without ASD. This impairment could potentially explain the social difficulties that individuals with ASD experience. Repetitive behaviors, social anxiety, and difficulty communicating with others are all common in ASD. Although there has been research exploring the differences in neurological constructs between ASD and non-ASD individuals, little research has looked at the role these deficits play.
Mitsuru Kikuchi of the Research Center for Child Mental Development at Kanazawa University in Japan wanted to add to the existing literature by looking first at differences in aPFC in 15 children with ASD, and 15 typically developing (TD) controls. Kikuchi then looked at how these deficits impacted social behavior. Kikuchi measured the frequency and connectivity of aPFC fluctuations in the children and found that the children with ASD indeed had higher levels of connectivity fluctuations in the aPFC region. But the results revealed no differences in the frequency of fluctuations. Kikuchi believes that the increased functional connectivity in the aPFC regions of young people with ASD could explain the social deficits these children exhibit.
The results of this study should be considered in light of some limitations. First, the aPFC region is still developing in young children and can be seen as immature at the ages measured in this study. “The current finding of higher connectivity in the aPFC may be attributable to the anatomical higher connectivity in ASD that occurs only during young childhood,” said Kikuchi. Future research should compare these increases to aPFC levels found in older children and young adults with ASD to clarify. Also, the sample size in this research was relatively small. Future work should also assess neurological impairments in a larger sample size. Finally, the reliability of the diffusion tensor imaging system used to measure neurological connectivity has been inconsistent. Additional attempts to explore this topic should address this and perhaps utilize alternate testing methods. Until that time, Kikuchi believes these results show that at least in young children with ASD, variances in the aPFC regions play a key role in social behavior.
Kikuchi, M., Yoshimura, Y., Shitamichi, K., Ueno, S., Hiraishi, H., et al. (2013). Anterior prefrontal hemodynamic connectivity in conscious 3- to 7-year-old children with typical development and autism spectrum disorder. PLoS ONE 8(2): e56087. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0056087
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