Research has shown, for the first time, that three sub-groups of autism can be identified by measuring brain activity.

Importantly, the research also showed that brain activity can predict how social skills develop.

Research has shown, for the first time, that three sub-groups of autism can be identified by measuring brain activity.This new way of predicting how social skills might naturally change could help in providing tailored care for autistic people who may need it in the longer term.

It could therefore significantly improve the quality of life for many.

Brain activity pattern found

The research, by Birkbeck, University of London, involved showing participants pictures of faces repeatedly while recording their brain activity.

Averaging the brain responses to each face revealed a specific brainwave pattern that occurred around 170 milliseconds after each face appeared.

The study confirmed that, at a group level, autistic people tend to process faces differently than non-autistic people. On average, autistic people show a short lag before the pattern appears.

The researchers said these differences are linked to activity in specific social brain regions and to genetic features linked to autism.

Three subgroups identified

The researchers also found there were three distinct subgroups within the autistic participants.

In a follow-up study of autistic participants after 18 months to two years, the researchers found that each individual’s original brain lag time predicted how their social skills changed.

This may help in tailoring support for individuals in the future because it could help in individual decision-making about the need for socially targeted support strategies.

Different responses and experiences

The lead researcher was Emily Jones, Professor of Translational Neurodevelopment at Birkbeck, University of London.

She said: “Around one per cent 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.”

She added: “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.”

The research forms part of the Autism Innovative Medicine Studies – 2 – Trials (AIMS-2-TRIALS) project. This includes a large-scale collaboration across Europe called the Longitudinal European Autism Project (LEAP), which aims to improve outcomes for autistic people.

The researchers published their study, ‘Stratifying the autistic phenotype using electrophysiological indices of social perception’, in Science Translational Medicine today (17 August 2022).



Published: 17 August 2022

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