Functional MRI in Asperger Syndrome and their relatives
The ARC was the first group to show orbito-frontal and amygdala underactivity in the autistic brain using SPECT (single photon emission tomography) and later fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) during empathy or 'mentalising' tasks. These regions have been recognized to be part of the 'social brain', a network of regions that includes medial prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate, which do not function in the normal way in autism. We have also used fMRI during attentional tasks (such as the Embedded Figures Task in the visual modality or acoustic change-detection tasks in the auditory modality) to reveal the brain basis of the superior attention to detail in autism. Some of these studies have also been conducted in parents or siblings of people with autism, to reveal the genetically-based dimension to these neural differences. Our current studies involve developing new empathy and systemizing tasks for use in neuroimaging to detect key differences between cases and controls, and to use a genetic design to test the role of single nucleotide polymorphisms on brain activity. The ARC was a collaborator on the MRC AIMS (Autism Imaging Multicentre Study) and is a collaborator on the EU-AIMS study.