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Distinct differences mark male, female autism brains

by  /  20 May 2014

Julia Yellow Brain protection: Some brain regions that distinguish girls with autism may be linked to their ability to compensate for their problems.

Male and female preschoolers with autism have distinct sets of brain regions that distinguish them from typically developing controls, according to unpublished research presented Saturday at the 2014 International Meeting for Autism Research in Atlanta.

The findings suggest that differences in brain structure may underlie autism’s gender bias. The disorder is four times more common in males than it is in females. Girls with autism tend to have more autism-linked mutations than do boys with the disorder. This has led some researchers to suggest that girls are somehow protected from autism, and need a heavier mutational burden than boys do to develop the disorder.

The data presented Saturday suggest that part of this protection may originate from differences in brain structure. Some of the brain regions that differ between girls with autism and female controls also generally distinguish typical girls from typical boys. These changes to ‘female’ brain regions also seem to track with the ability to adapt in girls with autism.

“These regions may not be associated with autism severity, but rather with some compensatory or adaptive function,” says Christine Nordahl, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Davis MIND Institute, who presented the results.

Nordahl and her colleagues scanned the brains of 22 girls with autism and 27 age-matched female controls, as well as 134 boys with autism and 54 male controls. The researchers scanned the children while they slept to assess their brain structures. The children were all about 3 years of age and have similar intelligence quotients and autism severity.

The researchers divided the cortex — the outer layer of the brain, responsible for most higher-order functions — into 68 regions. They looked for differences in the size of these regions between the groups.

The boys and girls with autism each have brains that differ from those of their respective control groups, with changes in regions relevant to autism. Surprisingly, however, the changes in boys with autism are completely different from the changes in the girls with autism.

In girls, changes to the volume of the left superior temporal gyrus — a region critical for language processing — are associated with greater autism severity. In boys, this is true for the left anterior cingulate, which has been linked to empathy and emotion.

Although the results are preliminary, the researchers hypothesize that the brains of girls with autism show evidence of compensatory mechanisms. Nordahl says she aims to recruit at least 90 more girls to balance the number of males and females in the study.

For more reports from the 2014 International Meeting for Autism Research, please click here.


4 responses to “Distinct differences mark male, female autism brains”

  1. Alison Cook says:

    Whilst it’s debateable as to which comes first – chicken or the egg, there is a statistically significant increased probability that an MtF transsexual will be autistic. I, myself, was born with both Gender Identity Dysphoria and Autism.

    My research leads me to believe that I am far from being alone. Discussions on transgender forums have produced a surprising number who claim to be similar.

    Hugs Alison

    • gregboustead says:

      Thanks for your comment.

      It’s an interesting and perhaps understudied area in the field. There was also work done by Simon Baron-Cohen showing a possible connection between female-to-male transsexuals and Autism Spectrum Quotient scores.

      We referenced that study in a blog post here: http://sfari.org/news-and-opinion/blog/2011/boy-talk

      Greg Boustead
      community manager, SFAR.org

  2. Leya says:

    I don’t know if I did have autistic syndrome or not. But, somehow, I did feel that living is hard which I need to struggle to cope with changes and the relationship between people. It is like to mix with others I need to be just like them. Love to do what they love, learn how to handle small talk, struggle to keep focus when people talking to me (I tend to lost focus after a few minutes conversation), I get anxious when there are to much people around, I feel sick to people’s noises until sometimes I feel like vomiting, I was always exclude when there were event among my friends which is somehow lead me to depression, I feel like people talking bad about me at my back, I got problem with language which is I can’t tell people well what I want to say because I keep losing tracks and sometimes lost the vocab as well. It is hard for me to keep relationship in a big circle which I tend to hangout with the same friends who can accept me well, I also hardly feel comfortable with new people, I got problem to start a conversation which is I always feel anxious and needlessly shy.
    But, I have normal IQ level as most people around me. I can talk well as long as I can keep my focus on track, I tend to feel comfortable around male which I did have more male friends than female despite I am a 20’s y/o woman.
    Am I really different or it just me feeling like me myself is weird?

  3. tahiti says:

    I am not transgender, but heterosexual, although I have a more neutral or lack of sense of gender that has lead some to think I am. I can act the role of being very feminine for society and partners enjoyment but when the show is over, I put aside the ‘clothes’ and become comfortably neutral again. Like wise I can be comfortable dressed masculine, digging a ditch or under a car as baking a cake or sewing, it means little to me as do many roles or activities or hobbies that seem gender based. It seems to have no effect on my inner sense of just being a human being. I find it strange other people have this inner sense of their genderness that is bound to societies idea of what their experience of their gender should be. To me it does not matter. Viva la difference!

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