A collaborative study between researchers in Canada and the US have discovered what may be the key to understanding the deeply introspective nature of so many people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (autism). It seems the brain of an autistic child never stops generating information, even when the child is asleep. Autistic patients may retreat into their own private but very busy worlds as a defense against the added bombardment of sensory information coming at them from the rest of the world.

Roberto Fernandez Galan, PhD, is an Associate Professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio, and senior author of the autism study’s report. First author Jose L. Perez Velazquez, PhD, is a Professor of Neuroscience in the Department of Pediatrics, Brain, and Behavior Center at the University of Toronto Institute of Medical School in Quebec. Velazquez says “measuring cognitive processes is not trivial” but their work proves it can be done effectively when combining medicine, engineering, and physics.

The research team recorded ongoing brain activity with magnetoencephalography (MEG) in boys and girls between the ages of 6 and 16. Of the 19 autistic children in the study, nine of them had been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. The autistic children were matched to a control group of non-autistic children. The MEG data was then analyzed to determine how busy each child’s brain was during periods of mental activity and at rest.

The team’s findings indicate that, even when in the deepest levels of sleep, the brains of the autistic children were still actively processing information coming from their surroundings. The researchers also measured the interactions between different regions of each child’s brain to assess its connectivity. The average amount of increased brain activity in the autistic children at rest was measured at 42% more than the non-autistic children.

The research team feels their findings strengthen the “Intense World Theory” of autism that describes hyper-functioning neural circuitry that leads to a state of sensory over-arousal. This theory is relatively new to the study of autism and comes from the work Kamila and Henry Markram are doing at the Brain Mind Institute in Switzerland.

This additional research strengthens the theory that autistic children escape into their own private worlds to slow down the onslaught of outside sensory information coming their way. This internal escape is a main characteristic of the disorder; many children withdraw from external stimuli, including personal interactions with their families and peers. Recent research suggests an autistic child is just so busy inside that outside interactions prove too much stimuli to bear.

Source: Perez Velazquez, Jose L., and Roberto F. Galan. “Information gain in the brain’s resting state: A new perspective on autism.” PMC. US National Library of Medicine / National Institutes of Health. Dec 24, 2013. Web. Feb 15, 2014.