The smaller the brainstem volume, the greater the likelihood of aggression in children with autism, a study from Brigham Young University researchers reports. Autism experts hope the finding will eventually lead to more effective intervention.
The study results, though preliminary, are significant, says co-author and BYU clinical psychology Ph.D. student Kevin Stephenson:
“The brain stem is really involved in autonomic activities – breathing, heart rate, staying awake – so this is evidence that there’s something core and basic, this connection between aggression and autism.”
Brainstem Aggression Involvement
Researcher Terisa Gabrielsen (center) preps Colby Garrard, who has autism, for an MRI scan. His father, Stephen Garrard, lies on the bed to show his son what it will be like. Credit: Bradley Slade
For the project, the team examined MRI images from two groups of children with autism: one that exhibited problematic levels of aggression and one that didn’t.
Study co-author Terisa Gabrielsen, a BYU assistant professor of school psychology, said identifying the brain stem as having at least a partial involvement in aggression helps lay a foundation for better treatment.
“If we know what part of the brain is different and what function that part of the brain controls, that can give us some clues into what we can do in the way of intervention,” she said.
Co-author and BYU psychology professor Mikle South added,
“Once the body arousal in a child is too much – the heart is beating, the hands are clenched and the body is sweating – it’s too late. Some of these kids, if the brain isn’t working as efficiently, they may pass that point of no return sooner. So with behavioral interventions, we try to find out what the trigger is and intervene early before that arousal becomes too much.”
Aggression, South pointed out, makes both family dynamics and schooling dynamics very difficult.
In addition to a number of other studies planned or in process, the team is interested in exploring further how the brain stem is connected functionally to other areas of the brain,
“because usually the brain doesn’t work from just one area; it’s a network of areas that all work together,” Stephenson said. “So if one area is disrupted, it’s likely that other areas are disrupted as well.”