Study Shows Link Between The Brain Function of Autistic Children and Their Siblings


One of the known symptoms of Autism is for those with the disorder to have difficulty reading facial expressions of other people. A recent study has suggested, however that siblings of those with Autism show a similar lack of activity in the area of the brain that controls empathy. Researchers suggest that this may be a helpful biomarker for identifying the cause of Autism.

Just this month, Science Daily published an article about this study. Dr. Michael Spencer led this study and says: “The findings provide a springboard to investigate what specific genes are associated with this biomarker. The brain’s response to facial emotion could be a fundamental building block in causing autism and its associated difficulties.”

Previously, studies have shown that the brains of children with Autism process facial expressions differently than the ‘normal’ brain. This study was the first time that the connection between Autistic children and their siblings. Both show a lack of activity when reading others’ facial expressions. The siblings had no signs of Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, however they had a lower activity in the areas of the brain that enables us to read facial expressions and controls empathy than those who had no familial connection to Autism.

The only control that differed in the study was whether the non-Autism sibling had a sibling with Autism, it can possibly indicate that the differences can be due to the gene that causes the child to be at a genetic risk for Autism. How is it though, that only one sibling has Autism and the other doesn’t? It is known that in a family that has one child with Autism, the likelihood of having another child with Autism is 20x higher. However what about these families’ differed to where one child did not develop Autism?

Dr. Spencer says:   “It is likely that in the sibling who develops autism additional as yet unknown steps — such as further genetic, brain structure or function differences — take place to cause autism.”

It’s questions like these that Dr. Spencer’s team is looking at. Finding this similarity puts us one step closer to finding the true cause of Autism. While we’re sure of certain diets, habits, and environmental factors that can trigger symptoms of Autism, the cause of Autism is a step in the right direction of finding a cure.

We’re keeping our eye on this one. Stay tuned for news as we get it!


  1. Irfaon says

    This is not correct in very many cases – many autistic children react to facial expressions (includiing my child). I have not seen any siblings of autistic children – not recognizing facial expressions in our support group which incidently is quite large.

  2. Mary says

    First of all reading the facial expressions of others is not the same thing as empathy. What happens in the brain of a blind person? What happens as our society becomes a Botox society?
    Since ‘you are so sure that certain diets, habits, and environmental factors can trigger symptoms of Autism; would it not be more logical to see the activity of this brain region with and with-out these triggers. From a neuro-immune system point of view, tests like this would only be valid with all subjects being of equal health.
    Possibly, where you see no activity, it is by intelligent design and that any overtaxed immune system knows enough to not use any cycles that are not absolutely required. Maybe this region of the brain and other regions are not necessary survival mechanisms in any person.
    Lastly, stating someone has autism, while at the same time saying factors can trigger symptoms of autism are two very different things.

  3. Nora says

    I agree with Irfaon’s comments – this is not correct. My autistic child also recognizes and reacts to facial expressions and certainly her older sibling does. Further, her older sibling is classed as ‘gifted’ (by Australian Educational Authorities), did well at school and attends University and is also very artistic. You might think my autistic child is high functioning or Aspergers, well no she is not.
    In my experience, I do not see the faintest link here.

  4. admin says

    Dear Nora, I do agreed with you that not all research information can be used to generalize across all autistic child and it is especially important that a well-designed research must encompasses randomized participants. This study I am writing about is a great example of a pilot study that need further investigation. However, I do have to give validity to it as well as it does point out that autistic child behave, think and express differently that can otherwise give us a clue or so about them.

  5. admin says

    Dear Mary, I agreed that reading facial expression and empathy are two different issues. However, you miss the point of this research. The study was done in order to see if there is a connection with facial expresion or reaction among different populations. In this case, the researcher had to come up with a common denominator like facial expression so that all other variables can be sorted and profiled accordingly. I understand that this research can be better done if we could isolate different groups with different trigger symptoms. This is just a matter of research design and maybe, they should hire you as consultant for this. Our brain does react and not necessarily express facially and you could see this during a SPECT study.

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