Self-regulation of brain oscillations as a treatment for aberrant brain connections in children with autism
Autism is a highly varied developmental disorder typically characterized by deficits in reciprocal social interaction, difficulties with verbal and nonverbal communication, and restricted interests and repetitive behaviors. Although a wide range of behavioral, pharmacological, and alternative medicine strategies have been reported to ameliorate specific symptoms for some individuals, there is at present no cure for the condition. Nonetheless, among the many incompatible observations about aspects of the development, anatomy, and functionality of the autistic brain, it is widely agreed that it is characterized by widespread aberrant connectivity. Such disordered connectivity, be it increased, decreased, or otherwise compromised, may complicate healthy synchronization and communication among and within different neural circuits, thereby producing abnormal processing of sensory inputs necessary for normal social life. It is widely accepted that the innate properties of brain electrical activity produce pacemaker elements and linked networks that oscillate synchronously or asynchronously, likely reflecting a type of functional connectivity. Using phase coherence in multiple frequency EEG bands as a measure of functional connectivity, studies have shown evidence for both global hypoconnectivity and local hyperconnectivity in individuals with ASD. However, the nature of the brain’s experience-dependent structural plasticity suggests that these abnormal patterns may be reversed with the proper type of treatment. Indeed, neurofeedback (NF) training, an intervention based on operant conditioning that results in self-regulation of brain electrical oscillations, has shown promise in addressing marked abnormalities in functional and structural connectivity. It is hypothesized that neurofeedback produces positive behavioral changes in ASD children by normalizing the aberrant connections within and between neural circuits. NF exploits the brain’s plasticity to normalize aberrant connectivity patterns apparent in the autistic brain. By grounding this training in known anatomical (e.g., mirror neuron system) and functional markers (e.g., mu rhythms) of autism, NF training holds promise to support current treatments for this complex disorder. The proposed hypothesis specifically states that neurofeedback-induced alpha mu (8–12 Hz) rhythm suppression or desynchronization, a marker of cortical activation, should induce neuroplastic changes and lead to normalization in relevant mirroring networks that have been associated with higher-order social cognition.