A new discovery in neuroscience may explain why autistic people so readily withdraw into their own worlds — a brain generating much more information while at rest.
In the quest to unlock the autistic brain, investigators from the University of Toronto and Case Western Reserve University found something remarkably different about people with autism. On average, the brains of autistic people experienced a 42 percent increase in capacity to generate “information,” according to lead investigator Dr. Roberto Fernández Galán. "Our results suggest that autistic children are not interested in social interactions because their brains generate more information at rest, which we interpret as more introspection in line with early descriptions of the disorder,” he said in a statement.
The study follows Galan’s previous work finding connectivity differences in the brains of autistic children, asserting how those differences account for the increased complexity of the autistic brain. The investigators analyzed patterns found after recording the brain activity of autistic children using magnetoencephalography.
The investigators also measured the brain’s functional connectivity among regions, allowing them to actually measure a child’s “introspection level,” according to Dr. José L. Pérez Velázquez, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Toronto who worked on the study. "This is a novel interpretation because it is a different attempt to understand the children's cognition by analyzing their brain activity," he said in the statement. “Measuring cognitive processes is not trivial; yet, our findings indicate that this can be done to some extent with well-established mathematical tools from physics and engineering."
The work supports the “Intense World Theory” of autism proposed by neuroscientists as the Brain Mind Institute in Switzerland. They describe the neurological disorder as a “hyper-functioning” of brain circuitry leading to a state of over-arousal.
In December, the research team published a paper describing the first part of this overall work, wherein they found a difference in connectivity between the autistic and neurotypical brains. "We propose that the excessive production of information in the absence of relevant sensory stimuli or attention to external cues underlies the cognitive differences between individuals with and without autism," the investigators wrote. "We conclude that the information gain in the brain's resting state provides quantitative evidence for perhaps the most typical characteristic in autism: withdrawal into one's inner world."
Source: Velazquez, Jose L. Perez, Galan, Roberto F. Information Gain In The Brain's Resting State: A New Perspective On Autism. Frontiers In Neuroinformatics. 2013.