Understanding autism
Understanding autism

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

Understanding autism

4.1 Brain structure and function

Research into the structure and function of the brain draws extensively on a range of brain imaging techniques. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) suggests that key brain structures may have a slightly different size or shape in autistic people. For instance, studies suggest that the brains of some young autistic children are 5–10% bigger than those of typically developing children, although this difference disappears by adolescence. Another area where increased size has been observed is the amygdala, a brain region involved in evaluating the emotional significance of external events. Overgrowth of the amygdala in children with autism is related to the severity of their social and communication difficulties, – greater overgrowth tends to go with more severe difficulties – but again this disparity of size compared with typical development disappears in adolescence.

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) monitors brain activity while a person is performing psychological tests, such as recognising faces, responding to emotional stimuli or understanding language.

Described image
Figure 6 Image of Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scanning. The participant in an fMRI study responds to images, sounds or other stimuli while lying in a scanner. Use of magnetic fields to monitor blood flow in the brain yields information about which brain regions are active.

The patterns of brain activity revealed by fMRI may differ in people with autism, compared to the neurotypical population. For instance, there may be reduced activity in a brain region called the fusiform gyrus, which has a specialised role in face recognition, linking with the observation that autistic people find it hard to recognise faces which they have seen before.

Described image
Figure 7 Images of fMRI scans of an adolescent male on the autism spectrum (right) compared with an age- and IQ-matched typically developing control (left).

Atypical patterns of brain activity are also observed when autistic people perform tasks such as the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ test illustrated earlier.

(See Lai, Lombardo and Baron-Cohen, 2013, for an overview of findings like those discussed in this section.)

AUT_1

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371