Lorelei placed her groceries up onto the belt as quickly as she could. So much to do today, and the added bonus of having her nine year old daughter home from school unexpectedly definitely affected her to-do list. Sarah wanted to help with everything which was adorable, but sometimes slowed things down.
“Mama, what’s an amygdala?” Sarah asked out of the complete blue. “What?” replied Lorelei. After she repeated the question, Sarah looked at her mother inquisitively with calm anticipation. She had no idea how difficult trying to answer something like that while going through the check out of the supermarket could be.
“We will look it up when we get home honey, how about putting the cheese up here so we can pay for it”, Lorelei smiled. She loved Sarah’s curiosity, but she herself had no earthly clue what an amygdala was.
You may also be wondering what an amygdala is. Let’s take a look at how autism, amygdala, and our children work together shall we?
What is the amygdala?
The amygdala is a small, almond shaped region in the temporal lobe of the brain. It is responsible for emotions, behaviors, and motivation. Amygdala development, or lack thereof, affects our ability to identify problems and take appropriate action.
In a study called,The developing Amygdala: A Student of the World and A Teacher of the Cortex,we learn: “The amygdala’s function across the lifespan is to identify and effectively learn about important events in the environment  that are emotionally important or motivationally relevant . Both affective learning and associated amygdala activity increase under conditions of ambiguity or uncertainty [12–14]. This uncertainty is elicited, for example, by presentations of fearful  or surprised faces , which contain more ambiguous information than angry faces . The amygdala is also a central mediator of threat conditioning paradigms [18–21]. Importantly, the amygdala is most reactive during the uncertain phases of affective learning, including the conditioning paradigm phases of initial acquisition or extinction [22, 23].”
How does amygdala development affect mental health?
Study of behavioral sciences have found a direct correlation of amygdala growth and mental health issues. Magnetic resonance imaging is often use to measure amygdala development to diagnose mental health conditions.
The role the amygdala has on emotions
The amygdala is the center hub of emotional experience. It is where we identify and react to things that cause us to feel certain emotions such as facial expressions. It is part of the brain regions that enable us to recognize scary things, and where we put into practice the decision making skills to escape if necessary.
Amygdala and anxiety
Problems in the amygdala volume can cause potentially debilitating issues. One of those issue is anxiety.
Significantly larger amygdala volumes
Enlarged amygdala volumes are associated with behavior disorders.
Significantly smaller amygdala volumes
Smaller amygdala volumes are associated with anxiety disorders. Specifically the left amygdala volume being smaller has been linked with panic disorders.
Anxiety disorders interview schedule (ADIS/ASA)
The ADIS/ASA is a system used to assess anxiety arising in children, where it is coming from and how to treat it.
In a study called, Anxiety Disorders Interview Schedule-Autism Addendum: Reliability and Validity in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder we learn:“An ASD addendum to the Anxiety Disorders Interview Schedule-Child/Parent, Parent Version (ADIS/ASA) was developed to provide a systematic approach for differentiating traditional anxiety disorders from symptoms of ASD and more ambiguous, ASD-related anxiety symptoms. Interrater reliability and convergent and discriminant validity were examined in a sample of 69 youth with ASD (8-13 years, 75% male, IQ = 68-143) seeking treatment for anxiety.”
The results of this were, Ambiguous anxiety-like symptoms appear phenomenologically distinct from comorbid anxiety disorders and may reflect either symptoms of ASD or a novel variant of anxiety in ASD.
In other words, a person with autism distinct anxieties are symptoms of autism itself, additional anxieties can be present as symptoms of comorbid mental health issues and other neurodevelopmental disorders. The autism spectrum addendum helps professionals like clinical psychologists understand the difference and treat them accordingly.
Click here to find out more
How does the amygdala affect autism?
“Autism is a lifelong neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impairments in social interaction, deficits in communication, and a restricted repertoire of interests. The cause(s) of autism remains unknown and associated neuropathology has not been clearly established. Given the complexity of symptoms seen in autism, it is probable that several brain areas are dysfunctional. The amygdala, which is involved in the production and recognition of emotions such as fear, has been consistently implicated in the pathophysiology of autism (Baron-Cohen et al., 2000).”
With the above information we can now examine the amygdala developmental disabilities, how they are affected specifically, and how we can help our children with autism spectrum disorder cope.
Do people with autism have a smaller amygdala?
The question of amygdala growth and atrophy in people with autism spectrum disorder is complex. Here is what I learned in a paper called, Stereological Analysis of Amygdala Neuron Number in Autism,”…one possibility is that a biological defect inherent to autism leads to the production of a larger and more active amygdala. The more active amygdala produces a heightened level of fear and anxiety typical of autism (Muris et al., 1998) as well as a heightened and chronic stress response. Over time, the heightened stress response could possibly have damaging effects leading to the loss of neurons and a smaller amygdala. This scenario is not without precedent, because in depression, early stages are associated with amygdala enlargement (Frodl et al., 2002), whereas long-term depression is associated with atrophy of the amygdala (Sheline et al., 1998)”
It seems that the size and volume of the amygdala growth is instrumental in different underlying brain changes. Brain research and autism research suggest that autism affects the growth trajectory of how the amygdala forms.
Practical ways the amygdala linked issues occur in autistic children
Let’s discuss some of the ways amygdala issues present in autistic children.
Social behavior is directly affected by the amygdala. Children with autism often have difficulty identifying facial expressions. This alone is an example of the way the amygdala plays a role in their life.
If they have trouble identifying what another person is feeling by looking at their face, they will also not know how to act in response. This can cause excessive worries related to negative social behavior and experiences.
Anxiety commonly occurs in autistic children. Whether it is autism specific anxieties, or they experience traditional anxiety, it is all in the amygdala. Prolonged stress has been known to affect the size and volume of the amygdala as well.
Learning and memory
The amygdala is also where memory and learning take place. This can affect a child’s ability to learn and process what they learned. Memory issues can also contribute to anxiety.
A child’s ability to process information, remember it, and take the necessary actions to implement what they learn can be affected by the state of their amygdala. This can affect their ability to:
- understand information
- process information
- retain information
- solve problems
- interact with others
- process emotion
- control themselves
- navigate social behavior
- understand social rules of engagement
- understand themselves
- Express emotions, such as love and friendship
As they deal with these things, their amygdala is affected.
It’s kind of like a big circle. The way the amygdala functions in a person with autism can affect how they experience fear, anxiety, other people’s emotions, and what to do about it. Then, how those things are processed can cause more anxiety.
As anxiety arises, it can affect the volume and size of the amygdala over time which further affects the future emotional health, decision making, and social behavior of the child.
How can we help autistic individuals with amygdala problems?
Starting with your child’s pediatrician is a good idea. Moving forward there are therapies that can help teach the skills that could be challenged. The struggles that autistic children face socially and emotionally can be mediated a great deal when they have help.
Your child’s doctor is the only one who can truly help you understand the underlying biology and effect of amygdala volume on human development and children with autism spectrum disorder. However, I do find it helpful when understanding our children with autism’s specific struggles, to have a baseline of the “why” behind behaviors and challenges.
I trust this brief look has helped. If your child is struggling there is hope!
Tottenham, N., & Gabard-Durnam, L. J. (2017). The developing amygdala: a student of the world and a teacher of the cortex. Current opinion in psychology, 17, 55–60. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2017.06.012
Kerns, C. M., Renno, P., Kendall, P. C., Wood, J. J., & Storch, E. A. (2017). Anxiety Disorders Interview Schedule-Autism Addendum: Reliability and Validity in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of clinical child and adolescent psychology : the official journal for the Society of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, American Psychological Association, Division 53, 46(1), 88–100. https://doi.org/10.1080/15374416.2016.1233501
Jones, S. L., Dufoix, R., Laplante, D. P., Elgbeili, G., Patel, R., Chakravarty, M. M., King, S., & Pruessner, J. C. (2019). Larger Amygdala Volume Mediates the Association Between Prenatal Maternal Stress and Higher Levels of Externalizing Behaviors: Sex Specific Effects in Project Ice Storm. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 13, 144. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2019.00144
Hayano, F., Nakamura, M., Asami, T., Uehara, K., Yoshida, T., Roppongi, T., Otsuka, T., Inoue, T., & Hirayasu, Y. (2009). Smaller amygdala is associated with anxiety in patients with panic disorder. Psychiatry and clinical neurosciences, 63(3), 266–276. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1440-1819.2009.01960.x