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Ground-breaking new findings from measuring brain activity could pave way for tailored support for autistic people

The study confirmed that, at a group level, autistic people tend to process faces differently to non-autistic people.

New research from Birkbeck has shown for the first time that three sub-groups of autism can be identified from measuring brain activity. Importantly, the research also showed that brain activity can predict how social skills develop. This new way of predicting how social skills might naturally change could help provide tailored care, and therefore significantly improve quality of life for autistic people in the longer term.

The research involved participants being shown pictures of faces repeatedly while their brain activity was recorded. Averaging together the brain responses to each face revealed a specific brainwave pattern that appeared around 170 milliseconds after each face appeared. The study confirmed that, at a group level, autistic people tend to process faces differently to non-autistic people: on average, autistic people show a short lag before the pattern appears. These differences are linked to activity in specific social brain regions and to genetic features linked to autism. The researchers also found there were three distinct subgroups within the autistic participants. In a follow-up study of the autistic participants after 18 months to 2 years, they found that each individual’s original brain lag time predicted how their social skills changed. This may help us tailor support for individuals in the future because it could help in individual decision-making about the need for socially targeted support strategies.

Lead researcher Professor Emily Jones, Professor of Translational Neurodevelopment at Birkbeck, University of London, said: “Around 1% 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.

“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, which includes a large-scale collaboration across Europe called the Longitudinal European Autism Project (LEAP), that aims to improve outcomes for autistic people.

‘Stratifying the autistic phenotype using electrophysiological indices of social perception’ was published in Science Translational Medicine on 17 August. 

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