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Brain imagery may help explain autism

Researchers in Pittsburgh are making significant progress in the understanding of autism, reports NBC's Robert Bazell.

Ryan Yorio is an extremely likable 21-year-old who knows he has a problem.

"I have the disease autism," he says.

Yorio is what is called a high-functioning autistic. He has a normal IQ but still has other hallmarks of the mental disorder — especially difficulty in social interactions.

"I remember when I was younger, I was afraid to make eye contact, you know, with other people when I talk to them," says Yorio.

In a lab at Carnegie Mellon University, researchers scan the brains of autistics like Yorio and control volunteers while they perform tasks.

Dr. Marcel Just, who heads the effort, points out that both the autistics and the control group use the same brain areas for perception — but the parts of the brain that bring things together are far less active in the autistics.

"There's much more brain activity in the controls," says Just while looking at the scans.

The problem, he says, is that the autistic brain is out of synch — and that is the underlying issue with autism.

"When you put a person with autism into a complex situation, like a new task where they have to learn lots of new things — lots of people, things buzzing around, turning on and off — that's very, very difficult," says Just.

That's why Yorio can do some things well, like remember the details of his favorite cartoon, Sponge Bob.

"Patrick Star is his friend," recalls Yorio. "And Patrick is, like, completely stupid. But you know, Sponge Bob is funny. He works for the crusty crab. He's a fry cook and he takes the job very seriously."

But a regular conversation is difficult.

"They told me lots of times, 'shut up,' you know," he says.

The autistic brain has been a big mystery. The hope now is this new understanding will open avenues to more effective treatment.