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Brain scanning study reveals that the brains of people with autism are less active when engaged in self-reflective thought.

Scientists asked people questions which made them think about themselves whilst they were undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The ventromedial pre-frontal cortex (vMPFC) - a brain region known to be active when people think about themselves - was more active in non-autistic individuals when thinking about themselves compared to when thinking about another person; in this case the Queen. In contrast, the vMPFC of autistic individuals activated equivalently to thinking about themselves or the Queen.

This finding provides neurological insight into why people with autism tend to struggle to process information about the self and hence find it difficult to keep track of the relationship between oneself and others and navigate social interactions.

First author of the study Michael Lombardo (picture left) states:

"In some social situations it is important to notice that 'I am similar to you', while in other situations it might be important to notice that 'I am different to you'.

"The atypical way the autistic brain treats self-relevant information as equivalent to information about others could derail a child's social development, particularly in understanding how they relate to the social world around them."

This study was a collaboration between scientists working at the Autism Research Centre and Brain Mapping Unit, Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge and the Department of Psychology, University of Reading.

The research was published in the journal Brain (on line access, 13th December, 2009) and covered by BBC news.

Posted on 14/12/2009

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