At first glance, the preschool classroom on the other side of the two-way mirror looks like any other—brightly colored rugs, scattered toys, and tiny chairs. But almost immediately an observer notices differences in the Team Toddle students here at the Neuropsychiatric Institute of the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) (Los Angeles, California, United States).
A therapist instructs a toddler on his colors, flashing a rapid sequence of blocks at him. When the toddler starts rocking in his chair and repeatedly touching his forehead, the therapist physically restrains his hands, placing them back on the tabletop until he stops the repetitive behaviors and focuses once again on her face and the blocks. During playtime, a two-year-old girl sits by herself in the corner, fixated on some picture cards, oblivious to a group of other children playing with a racetrack and to the therapist who tries to draw her out to join the group.
These children lack some of the key social skills that normal toddlers pick up naturally—looking to others for reassurance or cues, focusing on faces, and playing together. Social and communication impairment is a hallmark of autism and can show up as early as 12–18 months of age. But with an unknown cause, and genetic linkages still hazy, there is little consensus among researchers on how the disorder develops in children and how it causes a broad spectrum of social, language, and behavioral deficits.
Following one line of research, David Amaral's laboratory at the M.I.N.D. Institute at the University of California at Davis Medical Center in Sacramento (California, United States) has recorded, in autistic brains, a brain volume increase in a specific structure, the amygdala, which is thought to be important for social behavior. A similar study at the University of Washington in Seattle (UW) (Seattle, Washington, United States) has reached the same conclusion. “There are so few facts about autism, to have two labs come up with the same data is phenomenal,” says Amaral. “We feel confident this is a real finding, but what does it mean to these kids?”
On another research track, using functional imaging, Ralph-Axel Müller, a cognitive neuroscientist at San Diego State University (San Diego, California, United States) sees a scattering of brain activation in autistic brains that he views as an indication of a more general brain development problem underlying the disorder (Figure 1). He has hypothesized that the early-developing basic functions may require more brain area in autism, pushing out and disturbing the later specialization for more complex functions. “I'm sure this is wrong,” he says, “but it will allow us to look in a more hypothesis-driven way at animal studies of how the cerebral cortex develops specialization.” Animal models may, in turn, yield clues about normal and abnormal brain development in humans.
“Since there is no major hypothesis as to cause [of autism], there are many plausible ideas,” says Amaral. “If we go after all of them, we will waste all of our resources. [We have to] come to some consensus about which are most plausible.” At least two levels of pursuit exist for tracing brain problems associated with autism—the exploration of the general developmental disruptions that result in an autistic brain, and the examination of more specific problems in particular brain structures that produce symptoms. Although scientists still debate how autism evolves in a patient, the field has begun in the last decade to replicate findings and make science-based arguments for interventions. Progress has come in small steps, with advances in neuroimaging and more rigorous experimental designs.
Research focuses have shifted from “curing” autism to finding better diagnostics for early intervention, improving behavioral therapies, and gaining insight into the development and function of the autistic brain. Both advocacy groups and government programs have started to bring together neuroscience and genetics experts, clinicians, and families to sharpen the focus of studies and ensure progress in what has often been a messy field.