Autism: Under the cortex

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Autism: Under the cortex
Autism: Under the cortex

In the depths of the brain

There are numerous theories about the neuronal roots of autism. Most suspect the causes of the developmental disorder in the cerebral cortex. However, there is much to suggest that deeper, subcortical areas of the brain are also involved.

Language, consciousness, abstract thinking, planning - these mental functions are mainly attributed to the neocortex, the evolutionarily youngest part of our brain. It comprises over 90 percent of the cerebral cortex, which is criss-crossed by convolutions and furrows. Most models of higher cognition and its development focus on this outer part of our mind.

So-called subcortical structures receive less attention. They lie deeper in the brain and are evolutionarily older. They include the thalamus, the amygdala, the basal ganglia and the cerebellum or cerebellum (see "Looking under the cerebral cortex", p. 76). Traditionally, they were considered "slaves" of the cerebral cortex, involved in accessory or motor functions. However, research over the past two decades paints a more complex picture. Accordingly, subcortical brain areas also play a role in many higher thought processes.

Neurologist Josef Parvizi of Stanford University in California called excessive focus on the cortex "myopic" as early as 2009. This often ignores the fact that higher functions are only possible if subcortical brain regions work correctly. In a recent publication…

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