Public Release: 

Study reveals subtle brain differences in men with autism

King's College London

Research at King's College London has revealed subtle brain differences in adult males with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which may go some way towards explaining why symptoms persist into adulthood in some people with the disorder.

ASD affects around 1 in 100 people in the UK and involves a spectrum of conditions which manifest themselves differently in different people. People with ASD can have varying levels of impairment across three common areas, which might include: deficits in social interactions and reciprocal understanding, repetitive behaviour and narrow interests, and impairment in language and communication.

The study, published today in the journal Brain, used a novel brain imaging method to identify altered brain connections in people with ASD. The researchers used Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI), a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) technique, to compare networks of white matter in 61 adults with ASD and 61 controls. White matter consists of large bundles of nerve cells that connect different regions of the brain and enable communication between them.

The scans revealed that men with ASD had differences in brain connections in the frontal lobe, a part of the brain that is crucial to developing language and social interaction skills.

Specifically, these men had altered development of white matter connections in the left side of the brain, the arcuate bundle, which is involved in language. The differences in the arcuate bundle, which connects areas of the brain involved in understanding words and regions related to speech production, were particularly severe in those who had a significant history of 'delayed echolalia'. Delayed echolalia is very common in ASD and manifests in the parrot-like repetition of words or sentences.

ASD was also associated with underdevelopment of white matter in the left uncinate bundle, which plays a significant role in face recognition and emotional processing. This also correlated with observations of 'inappropriate use of facial expression'in childhood.

Dr Marco Catani from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King's College London, said: 'White matter provides key insights which allow us to paint a precise picture of how different parts of the brain develop during critical periods in childhood.

'We found subtle brain differences in men who at a very young age had severe problems with communication and social interaction. The differences appear to remain even if they have somehow learned to cope with these difficulties in adult life.

'It is worth noting that the brain differences are visible only with the special research techniques we now have at our disposal. These differences are very subtle and potentially reversible. Thanks to neuroimaging studies like this, it may one day be possible to stimulate the development of these faulty brain connections, or to predict how people with autism respond to treatment.'

Dr Catani added: 'Our study did not include women and children, so it would be interesting to explore whether similar differences exist within these groups. For example, research has shown that women appear more resilient than men when it comes to autism, so it will be important if this is explained biologically in their brain development.'


This research was funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC) as part of the MRC Autism Imaging Multicentre Study (MRC AIMS) Consortium.

Notes to editors

The full research paper and images produced by the study team are available upon request.

For further media information please contact Jack Stonebridge, Press Officer, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King's College London on / (+44) 0207 848 5377 or (+44) 077 1869 7176.

About King's College London -

King's College London is one of the top 20 universities in the world (2015/16 QS World University Rankings) and among the oldest in England. King's has more than 26,500 students (of whom nearly 10,400 are graduate students) from some 150 countries worldwide, and nearly 6,900 staff. The university is in the second phase of a £1 billion redevelopment programme which is transforming its estate.

King's has an outstanding reputation for world-class teaching and cutting-edge research. In the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) King's was ranked 6th nationally in the 'power'ranking, which takes into account both the quality and quantity of research activity, and 7th for quality according to Times Higher Education rankings. Eighty-four per cent of research at King's was deemed 'world-leading'or 'internationally excellent'(3* and 4*). The university is in the top seven UK universities for research earnings and has an overall annual income of more than £600 million.

King's has a particularly distinguished reputation in the humanities, law, the sciences (including a wide range of health areas such as psychiatry, medicine, nursing and dentistry) and social sciences including international affairs. It has played a major role in many of the advances that have shaped modern life, such as the discovery of the structure of DNA and research that led to the development of radio, television, mobile phones and radar.

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