What is Autism Neurological?

Unlock what is autism neurological? Delve into ASD's diverse impacts, genetic insights, and more.

judah schiller
Judah Schiller
April 19, 2024
Published On
April 19, 2024

Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex subject, particularly due to the neurological and developmental aspects that influence its development and manifestation.

Overview of Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurological and developmental disorder that begins early in childhood and lasts throughout a person's life. It affects how a person acts and interacts with others, communicates, and learns. The symptoms of this disorder generally become apparent within the first 2 years of life.

ASD is referred to as a "spectrum" disorder because of the wide variation in the type and severity of symptoms people experience. ASD affects individuals regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, and economic background. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children receive screening for autism as a part of their regular pediatric checkups [1].

Neurological and Developmental Aspects

The diagnosis of ASD encompasses a heterogeneous group of neurodevelopmental conditions characterized by early-onset impairments in communication and social interaction, as well as restricted and repetitive behaviors and interests. The diagnosis has replaced previous subtypes such as childhood autism and Asperger's syndrome with an overarching autism spectrum disorder diagnosis. This diagnosis requires the specification of key sources of heterogeneity such as language level, intellectual functioning, and co-occurring conditions [2].

The prevalence estimates for ASD have steadily increased over the years. In the 1970s, it was less than 0.4%, but current estimates suggest it affects 1-2% of the population. This increase can largely be attributed to broader diagnostic criteria for individuals without intellectual disability and those with milder impairments. It is also due to increased awareness and recognition of autistic traits. Notably, there are marked sex and gender differences in ASD, with a male-to-female ratio of approximately 4:1 in clinical and health registry cohorts.

While ASD can be a lifelong disorder, treatments and services can improve a person's symptoms and ability to function. Understanding the neurological and developmental aspects of ASD is crucial in creating a comprehensive approach to support and accommodate individuals with ASD, helping them to lead fulfilling and productive lives.

Diversity and Impact of ASD

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex neurological and developmental disorder that impacts a person's ability to interact, communicate, learn, and behave. The diversity of the disorder and its prevalence in society can be explored through the spectrum of symptoms and methods of diagnosis.

Spectrum of Symptoms

ASD is referred to as a "spectrum" disorder due to the wide variation in the type and severity of symptoms that individuals experience. Symptoms generally appear within the first 2 years of life and can range from mild to severe, affecting social interaction, communication, and behavior. Although ASD can be a lifelong disorder, treatments and services can improve an individual's symptoms and daily functioning.

The spectrum of symptoms can include challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as unique strengths and differences. This diversity of symptoms means that every individual with ASD is unique and their experience of the disorder can vary greatly from others.

Diagnosis and Prevalence

The diagnosis of ASD is typically made through a comprehensive developmental evaluation, which includes a parent interview, a medical exam, and an observation of the child's behavior. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children receive screening for autism, ensuring early detection and intervention.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated one in 36 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder, indicating the widespread prevalence of the condition. People of all genders, races, ethnicities, and economic backgrounds can be diagnosed with ASD, reinforcing the universal nature of the disorder.

Certain specific genetic conditions, such as Fragile X Syndrome and Tuberous Sclerosis, have been linked with an increased risk of ASD, with these conditions explaining over 30% of cases. Additionally, older parental age at the time of pregnancy has been associated with a greater risk of autism. However, vaccines, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status have not been found to increase the likelihood of an ASD diagnosis. It has been observed that male children are diagnosed with ASD more often than those assigned female at birth.

Understanding the diversity and impact of ASD is crucial in providing appropriate support and services for those affected by the disorder. With continued research and development in the field, it is hoped that the understanding of ASD will continue to grow, providing further insights into this neurological puzzle.

Neurobiological Mechanisms of ASD

The Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a prevalent neurodevelopmental disorder, characterized by impaired social communication and restricted and repetitive behaviors (RRBs). In an attempt to understand what autism is from a neurological point of view, researchers have employed various neuroimaging studies, providing significant insights into the neurobiological mechanisms of ASD. These studies mainly focus on understanding the structural and functional differences in the brains of individuals with ASD.

Structural Brain Differences

Structural MRI (sMRI) studies have revealed certain abnormalities in gray and white matter, with notable regional brain differences between individuals with ASD and typically developing (TD) controls source. The most consistent finding is accelerated total brain volume growth in early children with ASD, particularly around the age of 2 to 4 years source.

Several structural differences have been observed in specific parts of the brain:

  1. The hippocampus, which is responsible for forming and storing memories, is often enlarged in children and adolescents with autism. However, it remains unclear whether this distinction persists into adolescence and adulthood Spectrum News.
  2. Individuals with ASD have decreased amounts of brain tissue in parts of the cerebellum. Earlier thought to coordinate movements primarily, the cerebellum is now understood to play a role in cognition and social interaction as well Spectrum News.
  3. Infants later diagnosed with autism show unusually fast growth in certain brain regions. The surface area of their cortex expands significantly faster from 6 to 12 months of age compared to their non-autistic peers. Similarly, brain volume increases much faster in autistic children during the second year of life Spectrum News.
  4. Alterations have been found in white matter, the bundles of long neuronal fibers connecting brain regions. Studies using diffusion MRI have indicated potential connectivity differences in the brains of individuals with autism Spectrum News.
  5. In terms of sex differences, autistic girls have an increased measure of structural integrity in their corpus callosum compared with non-autistic girls. In contrast, this measure is lower in autistic boys than in non-autistic boys. White-matter changes in preschoolers with autism also vary by sex Spectrum News.

Functional Brain Abnormalities

Functional MRI (fMRI) studies have revealed abnormal brain activation in areas associated with social communication and RRBs in individuals with ASD source. These functional abnormalities can help explain some of the behavioral symptoms associated with ASD, highlighting the complex nature of this disorder. The ongoing study of these functional differences is crucial for understanding ASD's neurobiological mechanisms and developing targeted therapeutic strategies.

Genetic and Molecular Insights

As part of the exploration into the neurological underpinnings of autism, genetic and molecular studies have provided substantial insights. These studies have revealed a host of genetic risk factors and led to epigenetic and transcriptomic findings that further our understanding of this complex disorder.

Genetic Risk Factors

Genetic studies have identified more than 100 risk genes for autism implicated by rare, often de novo, potentially damaging mutations in highly constrained genes. However, these genes account for only a small proportion of the population risk. Most of the genetic risk for autism is attributable to common inherited variants acting en masse, each individually with small effects. Different risk genes converge on the same mechanisms, such as gene regulation and synaptic connectivity [2].

Rare genetic variants, including copy number variants (CNVs) and single nucleotide variants (SNVs), also contribute to the complex etiology of autism. Recurrent CNVs, which are rare, have been among the most convincing rare inherited risk variations for autism. De novo mutations in protein-coding genes also contribute to risk, particularly in individuals with intellectual disability.

Epigenetic and Transcriptomic Findings

In addition to genetic risk factors, epigenetic modifications and gene expression dysregulation have been identified as playing a role in autism. Epigenetic changes, such as DNA methylation, can be influenced by genetic and environmental factors and may impact gene regulation, neuronal development, and functioning [2].

Dysregulated gene expression has been observed in the blood and post-mortem brain tissue of individuals with autism, with pathways related to synaptic connectivity, neurotransmitters, and chromatin remodeling being commonly implicated. Single-cell transcriptomics has also revealed dysregulation of specific genes in cortical neurons associated with autism severity.

A study identified 194 significantly different genes in the brains of people with autism, with 143 genes producing more mRNA (upregulated) and 51 producing less (downregulated) compared to typical brains. Downregulated genes were mainly associated with brain connectivity, potentially indicating less efficient communication between neurons in autistic individuals.

In autistic brains, there was an increased presence of mRNA for heat-shock proteins, which respond to stress, activate immune response, and inflammation. This presence could indicate immune dysfunction, which could worsen with age.

These findings offer valuable insights into the genetic and molecular mechanisms involved in autism, with potential implications for early detection, diagnosis, and treatment strategies. As research continues and our understanding of autism expands, we move closer to unraveling the complex neurological puzzle that is autism.

Neurotransmitter Systems in ASD

The neurotransmitter system dysfunction is believed to be central to the pathogenesis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Changes in these systems can affect vital processes in the brain such as neuronal cell migration, differentiation, synaptogenesis, and other developmental processes. Key neurotransmitters associated with ASD include the GABAergic, glutamatergic, and serotonergic systems.

GABAergic System Dysfunction

GABA (gamma amino butyric acid) is the main inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain, synthesized from glutamate. It plays a key role in the regulation of early developmental stages such as cell migration, neuronal differentiation, and maturation. Dysfunctions in the GABA neurotransmitter system have been widely observed in patients with ASD [5].

Glutamatergic and Serotonergic Systems

Glutamate, an essential excitatory neurotransmitter of the central nervous system, also plays a crucial role in various developmental stages such as cell migration, maturation, and synaptogenesis. Both hypo-glutamatergic and hyper-glutamatergic hypotheses have been proposed to explain the role of glutamate in ASD. Regardless of the precise mechanism, dysfunction in the glutamatergic system is evident in ASD.

Similarly, serotonin, a neuromodulator that acts as a developmental signal, has critical roles in regulating neuronal development, cell proliferation, differentiation, apoptosis, and synaptogenesis. The presence of hyperserotonemia (increased blood serotonin levels) in individuals with ASD suggests abnormalities in the serotonergic pathway. However, recent studies have also proposed the hypothesis of a hyposerotonergic condition in ASD. This means there is a clear dysfunction in the serotonergic system in individuals with ASD [5].

Other neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and acetylcholine are also implicated in the pathophysiology of ASD. Studies have reported abnormal dopaminergic and cathecolaminergic activity, as well as abnormalities in nicotinic acetylcholine receptors and choline acetyltransferase activity in individuals with ASD. However, further research is needed to establish the relationship between these neurotransmitters and ASD [5].

Associated Health Conditions

People with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often face a variety of health conditions in relation to their neurological condition. Comprehending these associated conditions can help in understanding the broader scope of autism and its impact on individuals.

Seizure Disorders and Mental Health

In the context of autism, seizure disorders are a significant concern. Around 20% to 30% of people with autism spectrum disorder develop seizure disorders. However, the exact reasons for this link are not well understood and the relationship between seizure disorders and autism remains complex and not fully clarified.

In addition to physical conditions like seizure disorders, individuals with ASD may also grapple with mental health conditions. People with autism often experience anxiety, depression, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) more frequently than the general population. Along with the core symptoms of autism, these mental health conditions may also present challenges that individuals with ASD have to contend with.

Comorbidities and Interventions

Beyond seizure disorders and mental health conditions, individuals with autism may also experience various other health issues. The exploration of these comorbidities forms a crucial part of understanding the full impact of autism on an individual's health.

While there is no "cure" for autism, several effective interventions can improve a child's functioning. The application of these interventions often depends on the specific needs of the individual and the nature of their autism symptoms.

Furthermore, several complementary and alternative interventions involving special diets and supplements have been tried over the years by parents and caregivers seeking ways to help their child with autism function better. Research into these types of interventions continues, and parents/caregivers interested in them should discuss them with their child's treating clinician [3].

Understanding the associated health conditions of autism is vital for anyone seeking to comprehend what autism, as a neurological disorder, entails. It's crucial to remember that every individual with autism is unique, and the manifestation of these associated conditions can vary widely from person to person. This complexity underscores the need for personalized care and interventions for individuals with ASD.


[1]: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/autism-spectrum-disorders-asd

[2]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8477228/

[3]: https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/autism/what-is-autism-spectrum-disorder

[4]: https://health.ucdavis.edu/news/headlines/uc-davis-study-uncovers-age-related-brain-differences-in-autistic-individuals/2023/03

[5]: https://www.intechopen.com/chapters/47605

[6]: https://www.psycom.net/autism-brain-differences