According to researchers at the Center for Autism Research at the Children’s Hospital Research Center in La Jolla, California, autistic individuals do not daydream about themselves and other people whenever their minds have the opportunity to wander off.

According to Daniel Kennedy, one of the researchers, our network of brain areas that facilitate daydreaming allow us to wander, and wonder about other people, to process our emotions and process familiar faces. Processing emotions, familiar faces and being aware of other people and how they are – are all functions that people with autism have difficulties with.

You can read about this study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Kennedy says the function of daydreaming is a high metabolism one which uses up lots of oxygen and glucose – and the neurons are really firing. He says daydreaming is facilitated through a distributed set of brain regions, which scientists call a resting network. The resting network probably has a lot to do with the building up of self and self-awareness.

This resting network focuses on the self, and how the self interacts with other selves (other people).

Kennedy said the frontal cortex in the brain or a person with autism grows too fast and too big. He and team member, Elizabeth Redcay, wanted to look at the entire resting network and observe what was going on. Previously, studies had only focussed on each part of the resting network individually, but not as whole.

They used real-time MRI scans and measured levels of activity in the resting network of 15 individuals with autism – ranging from autism to Asperger’s syndrome, and 14 individuals without autism. The activity in the brain was measured by monitoring brain-energy usage.

Two tests were carried out. Brain activity was measured while all participants were at rest. Then they all underwent a Stroop test – which autistic and non-autistic people usually perform equally well.

When switching from resting to dealing with the Stroop test, the control group’s (people without autism) brains switched high brain-energy usage in the resting network to other parts of the brain which deal with cognition. Kennedy said their resting networks shut down so they could perform tasks carried out by other regions on the brain.

However, this did not happen in the brains of the individuals with autism.

Two observations were made with the brain activities of the autistic subjects:

— During their resting period. Their resting network was not at a high level, as was the case with the control group.

— When switching to the Stroop test, the autistic subjects’ resting network did not shut down, as was the case with the control group.

In other words, the resting network of autistic people does not fire up or switch off – it just keeps ticking over.

The researchers conclude that autistic people, whose resting network is not fired up while resting, do not daydream in the same way non-autistic people do.

They also found that those whose resting network activity levels differed the most from the control group’s were precisely the ones with the most abnormal levels of social behaviours. There was a clear correlation between low levels of activity in the resting network during rest with difficulties in social behaviours.

Kennedy said it is very hard to know what autistic people are thinking when resting, when the mind is allowed to wander. The higher the severity of an individual’s autism is, the more repetitive his/her thoughts tend to be while resting – they are drawn by stereotyped thoughts, such as calendars, schedules, maps, computers – fixed, rigid things.

Even though this study does not reveal the cause of autism, it does offer some indicators. Kennedy explained that as autism is a neuro-developmental disorder, whatever happens in the first couple of years of life is crucial to understanding what the cause of autism is. We need to know more about what goes on during early development in the resting network which has a high metabolism during rest in the adult brain of non-autistic people. We need to find out if and when the energy to those areas is cut off, as he believes they would be the first areas of the brain to be affected by individuals with autism.

As a parent with a son who has Asperger’s Syndrome, I am drawn to this study with many hopes and questions, such as:

— If activity levels in the resting network do not fire up when resting, what can be done to help the autistic individual in this area?

— Does the resting network not fire up because of lack of blood flow or for some other reason? In other words, is there a physical reason that the area is not firing up, or is the brain just not instructing the area to get extra energy?

— If an autistic individual was given the ability to fire up and switch off his/her resting network, how much of his/her autism would go away?

— Does the resting network need to be fired up to stop a person from having repetitive thoughts? Or is this just coincidence?

Written by: Christian Nordqvist
Editor: Medical News Today