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Higher excitability in social brain regions of autistic men compared to women, study finds

a teenage with autism relaxing with rocking chair
Photo: jjwarren97

New findings suggest that autistic men, but not women, have enhanced neural excitability in their social brain regions, and this may impact their ability to navigate social situations.

New insight on differences in the brains of men and women with autism has been published today in the open-access journal eLife.

The study suggests that autistic men, but not women, have enhanced neural excitability in specific brain regions that are important for social cognition and self-reflection, and this may differentially impact their ability to navigate social situations.

These findings support the idea that imbalances between excitation and inhibition in the brain affect some individuals with autism more than others. They also pave the way for further research to measure the imbalance of excitation and inhibition with non-invasive neuroimaging techniques. This could help scientists evaluate how different treatments may affect this aspect of the brain’s biology.

The brain possesses its own natural balance between excitation and inhibition, but this balance differs among individuals. Higher levels of excitation are linked to the function of some autism-relevant genes that are found on the sex chromosomes, and can also be affected by hormones produced in higher quantities in men, such as testosterone. Differences in these sex-related mechanisms are important as autism affects males more than females.

“With this study, we wanted to gain a better understanding of how excitation-inhibition imbalance may affect autistic men differently to women,” says one of the study’s lead authors, Stavros Trakoshis, a graduate student at the Laboratory for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders at the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT) in Rovereto, Italy, and also based at the University of Cyprus.

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