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15 Nov 2021, 8:14 am

Brain’s sensory switchboard has complex connections to autism

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Since sensory differences became part of the diagnostic criteria for autism in 2013, an increasing number of autism researchers have been drawn to the thalamus, the egg-shaped sensory relay station nestled deep in the brain. The flurry of interest has built a case for the thalamus as an important sensory filter that may function differently in autism, helping to explain why some autistic people are unusually sensitive to (or sometimes drawn to) sensory stimuli.

But it has also suggested that the role of the thalamus in autism extends beyond the sensory world. New research reveals that the thalamus influences functions as diverse as sleep, social cognition, attention and learning.

“The thalamus plays a role in a lot of cognitive functions that are implicated in autism, so that’s why it’s a no-brainer to study it,” says Antonio Hardan, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University in California.

Studies of the thalamus’ role in autism have also expanded what is known about the region’s structure, assigning distinct functions to subregions and illuminating how it collaborates with the rest of the brain. Connections between the thalamus and autism genes and traits “lead us to think a lot harder about what does the thalamus do,” says Guoping Feng, professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

It has long been thought that the thalamus’ job is to transmit signals from the eyes, ears and other sensory organs to the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the brain, where the information is processed. By the mid-2000s, researchers had established that signals from the thalamus help determine how parts of the cortex become tuned to certain sensory stimuli in developing mice, underscoring the structure’s role in how the brain matures.

It has long been thought that the thalamus’ job is to transmit signals from the eyes, ears and other sensory organs to the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the brain, where the information is processed. By the mid-2000s, researchers had established that signals from the thalamus help determine how parts of the cortex become tuned to certain sensory stimuli in developing mice, underscoring the structure’s role in how the brain matures.

“This just really suggested that the thalamus might play some role in atypical development, atypical functional specialization of the cerebral cortex in autism,” says Ralph-Axel Müller, professor of psychology at San Diego State University in California.

In 2006, Müller and his team reported that autistic people have unusually strong functional connectivity — a measure of how synchronized two brain regions are in their activity — between the thalamus and parts of the cortex. Other studies have since shown alterations in connectivity between the thalamus and the cortex in autism.

Researchers have amassed ample evidence that the thalamus contributes to unusual sensory responses in people with autism.

Alterations in brain chemistry provide more support for a central role for the thalamus in autism. The thalamus of people with autism contains low levels of N-acetyl aspartate, a marker of neuronal integrity, and shows other chemical differences from that of controls, Hardan and his colleagues reported in 2018. Two years later, the researchers reported a potential deficit in concentrations of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a signaling molecule that dampens brain activity, in both the thalamus and the prefrontal cortex in adults with autism. Low levels of GABA in neural circuits linking the thalamus and cerebral cortex have also been associated with sensory sensitivity in people with autism, in which typical sensory stimuli become bothersome or overwhelming.

A lack of GABA may make the thalamus not only more responsive to stimuli but also less selective in the information it passes along, says Michael Halassa, professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

This filtering function also helps regulate sleep, in part by tamping down sensory inputs when people are sleeping. A thalamus that does not filter out stimuli during slumber could spur insomnia or other sleep problems, which are common in autistic people.

Psychologist Aarti Nair has been investigating functional connectivity between the thalamus and the cerebral cortex in people with autism since she was a graduate student in Müller’s lab in the early 2010s. Her studies suggest a pattern of overconnectivity between the thalamus and sensory areas of the cortex, and underconnectivity with areas involved in social cognition, memory and planning, such as the prefrontal cortex. The work is part of a growing body of evidence that that the thalamus’ role in autism extends to emotion, cognition and regulation of social behavior.

‘Baby sibs’ — children who have an older autistic sibling — show this pattern of altered connectivity between the thalamus and cortex by the age of 6 weeks, Nair and her colleagues reported in September. Nair and Müller’s earlier studies in older children (ages 7 to 17 years) link this altered connectivity to social difficulties in autistic people as well as to some of their issues with executive function, which includes the impulse control and cognitive flexibility necessary for smooth social interactions. “That social piece is really kind of sticking out,” says Nair, now assistant professor of psychology at Loma Linda University in California.

“It made me think, ‘Gosh, maybe these changes that I’m seeing at the level of the cortex really are compensatory changes,’” says Audrey Brumback, assistant professor of neurology and pediatrics at the University of Texas at Austin. In other words, alterations in cortical function may be compensating for atypical activity deeper in the brain.

Brumback and others are also working to understand the anatomy of the thalamus, which is made up of many subunits, or nuclei. Each nucleus has connections to specific parts of the brain, and likely distinct functions that may affect particular autism traits. “It’s a relatively small structure that is incredibly complex in its functional organization,” Müller says.

Brumback’s work points to a role in social behavior for the mediodorsal thalamus, whereas other nuclei seem to govern aspects of learning, attention and other cognitive functions.

In both experiments, the team identified drugs that could reverse the attention or memory problems in the mice.

The list of possible strategies is long, given the thalamus’ many functions and connections to almost every part of the brain. “I was thinking about: Is there anything that the thalamus doesn’t do, that it’s not involved in?” Brumback says. “And I couldn’t think of anything.”


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DSM 5: Autism Spectrum Disorder, DSM IV: Aspergers Moderate Severity

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