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A systems neuroscience approach to autism: biological, cognitive, and clinical perspectives.

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Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York, New York 10032, USA.


Autism is a behaviorally defined disorder characterized by a broad constellation of symptoms. Numerous studies directed to the biological substrate demonstrate clear effects of neurodevelopmental differences that will likely point to the etiology, course, and long-term outcomes of the disorder. Consistently replicated research on the neural underpinnings of autism is reviewed. In general, results suggest several main conclusions: First, autism is a heterogeneous disorder and is likely to have multiple possible etiologies; second, structural brain studies have indicated a variety of diffuse anatomical differences, reflective of an early developmental change in the growth or pruning of neural tissue, rather than localized lesions; similarly, neurochemical studies suggest early, neuromodulatory discrepancies rather than gross or localized abnormalities; and finally, there are a number of limitations on studies of brain activity that to date preclude definitive answers to questions of how the brain functions differently in autism. The large number of active research programs investigating the cognitive neuroscience of autism spectrum disorders, in combination with the exciting development of new methodologies and tools in this area, indicates the drama and excitement of work in this area.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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