Research has shown for the first time that three sub-groups of autism can be identified from measuring brain activity.
Birkbeck, University of London, conducted the research which also showed that brain activity can predict how social skills develop. It is thought by those involved that this new way of predicting how social skills might naturally change could help provide tailored care for autistic people.
Emily Jones, Professor of Translational Neurodevelopment at Birkbeck, University of London, commented: “Around 1% of the UK population are autistic, and typically respond differently to social interactions. They also tend to have different communication styles, as well as patterns of interests and sensory difficulties. The way in which different people experience autism varies widely from one person to another.
“Our findings could eventually be used to tailor support more effectively and help increase mental wellbeing and quality of life for autistic people. This is important because difficulties with social development may lead to an increased chance of isolation and loneliness, which may in turn contribute to the higher levels of anxiety and depression reported by autistic people.”
A need for socially targeted supports
The research involved participants being shown pictures of faces repeatedly while their brain activity was recorded. Averaging together the brain responses to each face revealed a specific brainwave pattern that appeared around 170 milliseconds after each face appeared.
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The study confirmed that, at a group level, autistic people process faces differently to non-autistic people: on average, autistic people show a short lag before the pattern appears. These differences are linked to activity in specific social brain regions and to genetic features linked to autism.
The university also found there were three distinct subgroups within the participants. In a follow-up study of the autistic participants after 18 months to two years, they found each individual’s original brain lag time predicted how their social skills changed. This may help us tailor support for individuals in the future because it could help in individual decision-making about the need for socially targeted support strategies.
Jones et al. Stratifying the autistic phenotype using electrophysiological indices of social perception. Science Translational Medicine. https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/scitranslmed.abf8987