New link between autism and anxiety in brain structure

Anxiety is currently emerging with the pandemic and it has the potential to be debilitating for people with autism, so it’s important to understand what’s going on in the brain.

The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped structure in the brain. It plays an important role in processing emotions, especially fear, and studies have linked it to both autism and anxiety.

Anxiety often occurs with autism. Previous research showed an anxiety rate of 69% in autistic children and 8% in non-autistic children.

But so far, no one has looked at amygdala development over time in people with autism, in relation to different forms of anxiety.

To find that out, the team used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan the brains of 71 autistic and 55 non-autistic children between the ages of 2 and 12.

Children were scanned up to four times. All were participants in the Autism Phenomenon Project, a longitudinal study that began in 2006 at the MIND Institute.

Clinical psychologists with expertise in autism interviewed parents about their children. Interviews were conducted when children were 9-12 years old. They include questions about traditional anxiety, as defined by the DSM-5, a handbook used to diagnose mental health conditions.

Psychologists used the Anxiety Disorders Interview Schedule (ADIS) as well as the Addendum to the Autism Spectrum (ASA), a tool developed to explain autism-specific anxiety.

The results show that nearly half of children with autism have traditional anxiety or anxiety separate from autism, or both. The opposite was true for children with autism who exhibited anxiety symptoms distinct from autism: They had significantly smaller amygdala volumes.

Different subtypes of autism may have fundamentally different brain changes. If traditional and separate anxieties were taken together, the amygdala changes would cancel each other out and they would not detect different patterns of amygdala development.

The anxiety study as distinct from autism is a new one, and the authors note that the results will need to be replicated, but the study is a strong case for this.

With clear brains, the changes associated with anxiety distinct from autism tend to validate the notion of the existence of this type of anxiety in autism.

In the future, the researchers plan to examine how the amygdala interacts with other regions of the brain.

Source: Medindia

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