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The Autistic Brain: Neurobiology and Social Behavior

The Autistic Brain
Reported by
Catherine Zandonella

Posted September 21, 2007

Presented By

New York Academy of Sciences


The autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are pervasive developmental disorders that range from severe autism to the milder Asperger's syndrome. ASDs are diagnosed in 1 in 150 children in the United States, affecting four times as many boys as girls. Three researchers studying autism presented their recent work at the Academy on May 30, 2007.

Fred Volkmar, Yale University Child Study Center, reviewed our current understanding of autism and summarized recent research aimed at unraveling how the autistic brain functions. Mirella Dapretto, University of California, Los Angeles, gave an overview of how dysfunctional mirror neurons may play a role in autism and detailed recent experiments looking at how these neurons fire in autistic brains. Michael E. Goldberg, Columbia University, described how the parietal region of the brain participates in focusing attention and discussed implications for attention deficits in autism.

Web Sites

Autism Society of America Foundation
A resource for the autism community focusing on education, advocacy, services, research and support.

Autism Speaks
An advocacy and research organization dedicated to increasing awareness of autism spectrum disorders, to funding research into the causes, prevention, treatments and cure for autism, and to advocating for the needs of affected families. Autism Speaks has merged with the National Alliance for Autism Research (NAAR) and Cure Autism Now (CAN), bringing together the nation's three leading autism advocacy organizations.

Autism Tissue Program
A program to collect postmortem brain samples for study with imaging methods to answer basic research questions about why some brains are large, how the limbic system develops, how the brain changes as it ages, and which neurotransmitters and brain regions are involved in autism.

Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders (M.I.N.D.) Institute at the University of California, Davis
The M.I.N.D. Institute is an international, multidisciplinary research organization, committed to excellence, collaboration and hope, striving to understand the causes and develop better treatments and ultimately cures for neurodevelopmental disorders.

National Institutes of Mental Health. Autism Spectrum Disorders
A detailed booklet that describes symptoms, causes, and treatments, with information on getting help and coping.

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS)
Conducts and supports research on brain and nervous system disorders including autism.

NIH Autism Research Network
A source for information on the two NIH-funded research networks dedicated to understanding and treating autism, the Studies to Advance Autism Research and Treatment (STAART) Network and the Collaborative Programs of Excellence in Autism (CPEA).

Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI)
A research initiative aimed at improving the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of autism and related developmental disorders. The research combines approaches including molecular, cellular, systems, immunological, cognitive, behavioral, genetic, theoretical, and computational perspectives. The Simons Simplex Collection is a research initiative that will provide the scientific community access to genetic and phenotypic information on 2000 families.

Yale Child Study Center
A multidisciplinary center aimed at furthering the understanding of the problems of children and families through child psychiatry, pediatrics, genetics, neurobiology, epidemiology, psychology, nursing, social work, and social policy.


Volkmar FR, Paul R, Klin A, Cohen DJ, eds. 2005. Handbook of Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorders, Two Volume Set. Wiley, NY.

Lord C, McGee JP, eds. 2001. Educating Children with Autism. National Research Council. National Academy Press. Washington, DC.
The National Academies Press | Amazon

Journal Articles

Overview of Autism: Current Status

Anderson GM, Jacobs-Stannard A, Chawarska K, et al. 2007. Placental trophoblast inclusions in autism spectrum disorder. Biol. Psychiatry 61: 487-491.

Autism Genome Project Consortium. 2007. Mapping autism risk loci using genetic linkage and chromosomal rearrangements. Nat. Genet. 39: 319-328.

Chawarska K, Klin A, Paul R, Volkmar F. 2007. Autism spectrum disorder in the second year: stability and change in syndrome expression. J. Child Psychol. Psychiatry 48: 128-138.

Chawarska K, Paul R, Klin A, et al. 2007. Parental recognition of developmental problems in toddlers with autism spectrum disorders. J. Autism Dev. Disord. 37: 62-72.

Chawarska K, Volkmar F. 2007. Impairments in monkey and human face recognition in 2-year-old toddlers with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Developmental Delay. Dev. Sci. 10: 266-279.

Klin A, Saulnier CA, Sparrow SS, et al. 2007. Social and communication abilities and disabilities in higher functioning individuals with autism spectrum disorders: the Vineland and the ADOS. J. Autism Dev. Disord. 37: 748-759.

Lainhart JE, Bigler ED, Bocian M, et al. 2006. Head circumference and height in autism: a study by the Collaborative Program of Excellence in Autism. Am. J. Med. Genet. A. 140: 2257-2274.

Molloy CA, Morrow AL, Meinzen-Derr J, et al. 2006. Familial autoimmune thyroid disease as a risk factor for regression in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: a CPEA Study. J. Autism Dev. Disord. 36: 317-324.

Newman TM, Macomber D, Naples AJ, et al. 2007. Hyperlexia in children with autism spectrum disorders. J. Autism Dev. Disord. 37: 760-774.

Paul R, Shriberg LD, McSweeny J, et al. 2005. Brief report: relations between prosodic performance and communication and socialization ratings in high functioning speakers with autism spectrum disorders. J. Autism Dev. Disord. 35: 861-869.

Richler J, Luyster R, Risi S, et al. 2006. Is there a 'regressive phenotype' of Autism Spectrum Disorder associated with the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine? A CPEA Study. J. Autism Dev. Disord. 36: 299-316.

Ventola P, Kleinman J, Pandey J, et al. 2007. Differentiating between autism spectrum disorders and other developmental disabilities in children who failed a screening instrument for ASD. J. Autism Dev. Disord. 37: 425-436.

Volkmar FR, Wiesner LA, Westphal A. 2006. Healthcare issues for children on the autism spectrum. Curr. Opin. Psychiatry 19: 361-366.

Volkmar FR, Tsatsanis KD. 2005. Asperger syndrome. J. Autism Dev. Disord. 35: 259-260.

White SW, Scahill L, Klin A, et al. 2006. Educational placements and service use patterns of individuals with autism spectrum disorders. J. Autism Dev. Disord. 37: 1403-1412.

Woodbury-Smith M, Klin A, Volkmar F. 2005. Asperger's syndrome: a comparison of clinical diagnoses and those made according to the ICD-10 and DSM-IV. J. Autism Dev. Disord. 35: 235-240.

Mirror Neurons and Autism

Bernier PM., Gauthier GM, Blouin J. 2007. Evidence for distinct, differentially adaptable sensorimotor transformations for reaches to visual and proprioceptive targets. J. Neurophysiol. 98: 1815-1819.

Dapretto M, Davies MS, Pfeifer JH, et al. 2006. Understanding emotions in others: mirror neuron dysfunction in children with autism spectrum disorders. Nat. Neurosci. 9: 28-30.

Dapretto M, Lee SS, Caplan R. 2005. A functional magnetic resonance imaging study of discourse coherence in typically developing children. Neuroreport 16: 1661-1665.

Fecteau S, Lassonde M, Theoret H. 2005. Modulation of motor cortex excitability during action observation in disconnected hemispheres. Neuroreport 16: 1591-1594.

Iacoboni M, Dapretto M. 2006. The mirror neuron system and the consequences of its dysfunction. Nat. Rev. Neurosci. 7: 942-951.

Lee SS, Dapretto M. 2006. Metaphorical vs. literal word meanings: fMRI evidence against a selective role of the right hemisphere. Neuroimage 29: 536-544.

McNealy K, Mazziotta JC, Dapretto M. 2006. Cracking the language code: neural mechanisms underlying speech parsing. J. Neurosci. 26: 7629-7639. Full Text

Nishitani N, Avikainen S, Hari R. 2004. Abnormal imitation-related cortical activation sequences in Asperger's syndrome. Ann. Neurol. 55: 558-562.

Oberman LM, Hubbard EM, McCleery JP, et al. 2005. EEG evidence for mirror neuron dysfunction in autism spectrum disorders. Brain Res. Cogn. Brain Res. 24: 190-198.

Pfeifer JH, Lieberman MD, Dapretto M. 2007. "I know you are but what am I?!": neural bases of self- and social knowledge retrieval in children and adults. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 19: 1323-1337.

Wang AT, Dapretto M, Hariri AR, et al. 2004. Neural correlates of facial affect processing in children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder. J. Am. Acad. Child Adolesc. Psychiatry 43: 481-490.

Wang AT, Lee SS, Sigman M, Dapretto M. 2007. Reading affect in the face and voice: neural correlates of interpreting communicative intent in children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders. Arch. Gen. Psychiatry 64: 698-708.

Wang AT, Lee SS, Sigman M, Dapretto M. 2006. Neural basis of irony comprehension in children with autism: the role of prosody and context. Brain 129 (Pt 4): 932-943. Full Text

Williams JH, Waiter GD, Gilchrist A, et al. 2006. Neural mechanisms of imitation and 'mirror neuron' functioning in autistic spectrum disorder. Neuropsychologia 44: 610-621.

The Neurobiology of Attention

Bisley JW, Goldberg ME. 2006. Neural correlates of attention and distractibility in the lateral intraparietal area. J. Neurophysiol. 95: 1696-1717. Full Text

Goldberg ME, Bisley JW, Powell KD, Gottlieb J. 2006. Saccades, salience and attention: the role of the lateral intraparietal area in visual behavior. Prog. Brain Res. 155: 157-175.

Goldberg ME, Bisley J, Powell KD, et al. 2002. The role of the lateral intraparietal area of the monkey in the generation of saccades and visuospatial attention. Ann. NY Acad. Sci. 956: 205-215.

Gottlieb J, Kusunoki M, Goldberg ME. 2005. Simultaneous representation of saccade targets and visual onsets in monkey lateral intraparietal area. Cereb. Cortex 15: 1198-1206. Full Text

Ipata AE, Gee AL, Gottlieb J, et al. 2006. LIP responses to a popout stimulus are reduced if it is overtly ignored. Nat. Neurosci. 9: 1071-1076.

Ipata AE, Gee AL, Goldberg ME, Bisley JW. 2006. Activity in the lateral intraparietal area predicts the goal and latency of saccades in a free-viewing visual search task. J. Neurosci. 26: 3656-3661. Full Text

Krishna BS, Steenrod SC, Bisley JW, et al. 2006. Reaction times of manual responses to a visual stimulus at the goal of a planned memory-guided saccade in the monkey. Exp. Brain Res. 173: 102-114.

Zivotofsky AZ, Goldberg ME, Powell KD. 2005. Rhesus monkeys behave as if they perceive the Duncker Illusion. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 17: 1011-1017.


Fred R. Volkmar, MD

Yale University
e-mail | web site | publications

Fred Volkmar is director of the Child Study Center and the Irving B. Harris Professor of Child Psychiatry, Pediatrics, and Psychology at Yale University School of Medicine. He also serves as chief of child psychiatry at Children's Hospital at Yale–New Haven.

Volkmar is a child psychiatrist who trained at Stanford University and at Yale. He has a long standing interest in the assessment and classification of autism and related disorders. He was the coordinator of the International Field Trial for autism and related disorders, which developed the definition of autism used in DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, Fourth Edition, 1994). He is also an associate editor of Psychoses and Pervasive Developmental Disorders in Childhood and Adolescence and, along with Drs. Paul, Klin, and Cohen, of the Handbook of Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorders, Third Edition.

Mirella Dapretto, PhD

David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA
e-mail | web site | publications

Mirella Dapretto is a developmental neuroscientist presently appointed as associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA. She received a PhD in developmental psychology from the UCLA Psychology Department, specializing in language development. As a postdoctoral fellow at the UCLA Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center, she then acquired expertise in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) under the guidance of Susan Bookheimer.

Dapretto has been the recipient of several awards, including an NIH award to study the neural systems associated with language functions in typically developing children, and three grants (funded by the Cure Autism Now foundation, the M.I.N.D. Research Institute at UC Davis, and the National Alliance for Autism Research) to study the neural basis of the persistent communicative impairments observed in autism. Dapretto currently is co-investigator with Susan Bookheimer on the CPEA imaging study at UCLA entitled "Functional Imaging of Social Communication in Autism."

Michael E. Goldberg, MD

Columbia University
e-mail | web site | publications

Michael E. Goldberg is the David Mahoney Professor in the Departments of Neuroscience, Neurology, and Psychiatry. He received his AB and MD degrees from Harvard University, and did a residence in neurology at the Harvard Longwood Program in Neurology. As a postdoctoral fellow at the NIH, in Robert Wurtz's laboratory, he discovered the first evidence for attentional modulation of visual responses in the awake, behaving monkey. He was a senior investigator at the National Eye Institute from 1975 to 2001, and moved to Columbia in 2001, where he directs the Mahoney Center for Brain and Behavior Research. He is an active member of the Neurology Department, overseeing a resident clinic and serving as an attending neurologist. His research has concentrated on the physiological mechanisms underlying the generation of eye movements, and the role of the cerebral cortex in attention and spatial perception.

He has received numerous awards, including NIH grants to study attention and spatial perception, the Heller Lectureship in Computational Neuroscience of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel; the Wundt Lectureship at the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience in Leipzig, Germany; and the Sprague Lectureship in Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania. He is past treasurer of the Society for Neuroscience, and he was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


Gerald Fischbach, MD

The Simons Foundation
e-mail | web site | publications

Gerald D. Fischbach is the scientific director of the Simons Foundation. Fischbach was formerly dean of the Faculties of Health Sciences at Columbia University, and was director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at the N.I.H. from 1998–2001. Fischbach received his MD in 1965 from Cornell University Medical School and interned at the University of Washington Hospital in Seattle. He began his research career at the National Institutes of Health, serving from 1966–1973. He subsequently served on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, first as associate professor of pharmacology from 1973–1978 and then as professor until 1981. From 1981–1990, Fischbach was the Edison Professor of Neurobiology and head of the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology at Washington University School of Medicine. In 1990, he returned to Harvard Medical School where he was the Nathan Marsh Pusey Professor of Neurobiology and chairman of the Neurobiology Departments of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital until 1998.

Fischbach is a past-president of the Society of Neuroscience and serves on several medical and scientific advisory boards. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Institute of Medicine, and he is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a non-resident Fellow of the Salk Institute. Throughout his career, Fischbach has studied the formation and maintenance of synapses, the contacts between nerve cells and their targets through which information is transferred in the nervous system. He pioneered the use of nerve cell cultures to study the electrophysiology, morphology, and biochemistry of developing nerve–muscle and inter-neuronal synapses. His current research is focused on roles that neurotrophic factors play in determination of neural precursor fate, synapse formation, and neuronal survival.

Catherine Zandonella

Catherine Zandonellais a science writer based in New York City, covering such topics as environmental science, public health, and applied technology. She has a master's degree in public health from the University of California, Berkeley. Zandonella has written for a number of publications, including New Scientist, The Scientist, and Nature.