The early social brain in baby siblings of children with autism

PI: Professor Declan Murphy (Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London)
Funding: MRC, Centre for Female Health and Neurodevelopment (FHAND)

It is known that specific regions of the human brain (collectively referred to as the “social brain”) are activated in response to social and emotional stimuli, including emotional and vocal sounds. In adults and children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs), the pattern of activation in response to social and emotional sounds appears to be different. This project examines whether such sounds are also processed differently in 4 month old baby siblings of children diagnosed with autism, who have a greater risk of developing the disorder (at-risk babies), and in 4 month old babies with no known ASD in their families. The study uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to show the areas of the brain involved in processing social and emotional sounds during early development, in the hope that this will lead to a better understanding of the development of social communication. Further, by comparing the brain responses of at-risk babies who go on to receive a diagnosis of ASD with those at-risk babies who do not, we hope not only to better understand why some children develop ASD and others do not, but also in the long term, to use such information to develop tests and more effective interventions to help support and improve the quality of life of children with ASD.