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A team of researchers from Penn and Penn State have found that the brain’s amygdala is a unique structure in which people can perceive emotions but which is disrupted in people with autism. The researchers used functional imaging to study the amygdala in mice and humans whose amygdala functions to represent social cues, which is necessary for processing social situations.
This study suggests that the development of autism is associated with dysfunction in amygdala functions. These findings could be used to study how some autistic people learn to control and regulate their emotions.
The amygdala is a structure in the brain that is responsible for processing emotions including fear (flight or freeze), excitement (excitement), pain, pleasure and disgust. In humans, this structure is very small in size (20-36 microns) compared to other key parts of the brain, including the cortex and prefrontal cortex (PFC). A study by the team published in April 2011 found that mice with a congenital form of autism often display defects in the ability of the amygdala to process emotions. The abnormal structure in these animals, including increased activity of parts like the amygdala, was linked to autism-like behavior.
The Penn-Penn State team, a team led by Dr. Dina K. Cahn, found that people with autism could recognize and categorize certain emotion pictures but were unable to interpret others, which is a trait shared by people with the same trait but with different underlying genes. For example, people who suffer from autism may be particularly sensitive to images of faces, but may still struggle with processing faces that make them uncomfortable. However, the team also found that in mice with autism only parts of the amygdala displayed abnormal behavior, indicating that the autistic behavior was caused by a defective function in the amygdala’s structure.
“Our findings support the notion that emotions are represented in the amygdala, rather than expressed in other parts of the brain,” said Dr. Cahn. “This finding might offer clues to understanding some of the biological characteristics of autism – for example, why other forms of autism have symptoms like anxiety and social withdrawal, and why a subset of autism have been found to have severe deficits in social emotional behavior.”
This unique structure in the brain may be a key structure in the development of autism. Other scientists have previously shown that there may be a unique connection