We specialize in using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to reveal the neural underpinnings of autism. Our studies have been conducted with the participation of adults and adolescents with autism, as well as infants and toddlers at risk for the disorder. In this way we can discover how the brain changes across development.
In addition, we have used fMRI to study brain functional development in typically developing infants and toddlers. Results from our studies of normal development are foundational to our understanding of the mechanisms that go awry in autism.
fMRI with infants illuminates how autism first emerges
Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) impact one out of every 59 children born today. It is a disorder that affects how the brain grows and works, yet the functional brain characteristics of autism during the time when symptoms first appear, namely 12-36 months, is almost completely unknown. This is because fMRI studies have been conducted almost exclusively with high functioning adolescents and adults with autism.
The reason for this major gap in knowledge is that despite its power to map brain function, fMRI cannot be successfully used with awake, alert toddlers, whether autistic or typically developing. This is due to the strong requirement for subjects to remain still during an entire fMRI experiment, a task beyond the capabilities of infants and toddlers.
To successfully scan infants and toddlers with autism, the UCSD ACE has developed a new method that we call the “Sleep fMRI” method.
Learn more about sleep fMRI.
Sleep fMRI Studies with Typically Developing Toddlers Reveal How the Brain Develops Language Expertise
To identify the key systems that fail in autism, an understanding of the neural bases for typical language acquisition at this critical time period is needed. We addressed this question in our sleep fMRI study of typical toddlers (Redcay, Haist and Courchesne, 2008). In response to speech, typical toddlers in our study displayed extended networks of activation to complex speech information.
Specifically, functional activity was prominent in a number of different frontal and cerebellar regions that are involved in social, emotional, attention, novelty detection or sequence tracking functions in adults, whereas activity in 3-year-old typical children was prominent primarily in classic adult receptive language cortices, including the superior temporal gyrus (STG).
It may be that activation of these long-distance extended networks is important in establishing long distance connectivity, organizing long-distance synchronized interactivity, and stabilizing specialized and lateralized functional networks during early development.
Moreover, this evidence supports a more general assumption in the neurodevelopmental literature that frontal cortex development is key to the rapid acquisition of a variety of higher-order complex skills.
Overall, however, several sleep fMRI studies with typically developing toddlers demonstrate that the STG, particularly on the left side of the brain, is active and functionally responsive to language within the first year of life. The degree to which this pattern is similar, or different, in toddlers with autism may hold the key to understanding what genes and other factors are operating to adversely impact normal language and social development in autism.
Sleep fMRI Studies with ASD Toddlers Reveal How the Brain Develops Language Expertise
Initial sleep fMRI studies at the UCSD ACE have focused on understanding how the brain responds to language. In a series of studies ACE scientists have found functional defects in the superior temporal gyrus (STG), a brain region key for language processing. Results from studies note that defects are both early emerging and a core defect in the disorder, with abnormalities found in our studies in children as young as 14-months.
These defects largely take the form of reduced activation in the left STG relative to controls and a proclivity for greater right hemisphere activation relative to the left in some cases, the opposite of what is found in typically developing toddlers. For more information, see the original pioneering study by
Redcay & Courchesne (2008).
fMRI with School-Age Children, Adolescents and Adults During Face Processing Reveal Surprising Properties about Brain Function in the Disorder
For many, the ability to process a face is fundamental to the human social experience. It is the face that conveys socio-emotional meaning and acts as a portal between one’s internal state and the surrounding environment. Early studies of face processing in autism revealed a startling effect: reduced or completely absent functional activity in the brain region that strongly supports face processing, namely, a region in the middle lateral fusiform gyrus often referred to as the fusiform face area, or “FFA.” See papers by
Pierce et al., 2001 and
Schultz et al., 2000 for examples of this early work.
New studies, however, now show a remarkable effect: Namely, extrinsic factors that serve to increase attention, motivation, or interest can cause more normal functional activation in brain regions and networks in high functioning autistic individuals.
For example, showing adults and children with autism familiar faces such as pictures of their mother has been shown to result in normal levels of fusiform activity. See studies by Pierce and colleagues,
2008. Other scientists have also shown that increasing gaze fixation to the face by inserting a dot on the face and instructing subjects to attend to the face also results in more normal fusiform activity. See papers by
Hadjikhani and colleagues 2004 and
One interpretation of this finding is that the fusiform gyrus, an important brain region involved in face processing in normal individuals, can and does function in autism, but whether or not it does so depends more on systems that mediate fusiform function, such as attention, motivation, and reward systems, rather than the fusiform region per se.
above image (left in the picture) shows the location in the brain that is responsive to faces in typical individuals. This region, called the "Fusiform Face Area" (FFA) is located in a particular location in the temporal lobe called fusiform gyrus and is shown in this functional activation map. Although both sides of the brain are commonly active in response to faces, it is the right side that is usually more active in response to faces (note radiological convention where left and right are reversed in the image).
This image was taken from early face processing research conducted by Karen Pierce and colleagues at the ACE.
image on the right of the picture is of the human brain, post mortem, where the fusiform face area is colored in pink.