Objective: The nature of the underlying brain dysfunction of childhood autism, a life-long severe developmental disorder, is not well understood. Although researchers using functional brain imaging have attempted to contribute to this debate, previous studies have failed to report consistent localized neocortical brain dysfunction. The authors reasoned that early methods may have been insensitive to such dysfunction, which may now be detectable with improved technology.
Method: To test this hypothesis, regional cerebral blood flow was measured with positron emission tomography (PET) in 21 children with primary autism and in 10 nonautistic children with idiopathic mental retardation. Autistic and comparison groups were similar in average age and developmental quotients. The authors first searched for focal brain dysfunction in the autistic group by using a voxel-based whole brain analysis and then assessed the sensitivity of the method to detect the abnormality in individual children. An extension study was then performed in an additional group of 12 autistic children.
Results: The first autistic group had a highly significant hypoperfusion in both temporal lobes centered in associative auditory and adjacent multimodal cortex, which was detected in 76% of autistic children. Virtually identical results were found in the second autistic group in the extension study.
Conclusions: PET and voxel-based image analysis revealed a localized dysfunction of the temporal lobes in school-aged children with idiopathic autism. Further studies will clarify the relationships between these temporal abnormalities and the perceptive, cognitive, and emotional developmental abnormalities characteristic of this disorder.