Science & Research

Study finds age-related differences in autism

A professor’s meta-analysis found that neural markers of autism change with age

By
Contributing Writer
Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Autism disorders affect children’s brains differently than they do in adults’ brains, according to new research led by Daniel Dickstein, associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry last month, is the first large-scale data analysis concerning age-related changes in brain activity that are associated with autism, he said.

For his research, Dickstein analyzed data from previous studies through a meta-analysis, which he described as “a statistically sound way to pool large sets of data.” This technique allowed Dickstein and his team to compare functional brain images of 535 children with and without autism to a similar set of images  of 604 adult brains.

“This type of meta-analysis allows us to specify criteria for comparison,” said Matthew Pescosolido GS, a neuroscience graduate student who worked on the study.

The study found that the neural differences associated with autism may change as individuals age. The data showed that areas of high brain activity in children diagnosed with autism are different from the areas of high activity in adults diagnosed with the disorder.

“When people think about autism, they think about kids — but these kids become adults,” Dickstein said.

A better understanding of autism could lead to more effective treatments for both children and adults by targeting specific areas of the brain, Pescosolido said.

In the past, Dickstein’s research has mainly focused on bipolar disorder, ADHD and anxiety disorders, but he has always been interested in studying autism, he said.

After working at the National Institute of Mental Health, Dickstein returned to Brown, where he started the Pediatric Mood, Imaging and Neurodevelopment Program — Pedi-MIND — at Bradley Hospital in 2007.

“Dr. Dickstein is at the absolute forefront of conducting neuroimaging of children with psychiatric disorders,” Pescosolido said.

Dickstein, who is a trained pediatrician and child psychiatrist, said he hopes Pedi-MIND can help lead the way in identifying biological and behavioral markers of psychiatric illnesses in children to improve diagnoses and treatment of these conditions.

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