People with autism have difficulty navigating complex social interactions that most people take for granted.

Their disconnect in communication and engagement keeps some people with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, from fully bonding with others. Now, researchers have come closer to jump-starting the process with the first clinical trial using magnetic brain stimulation to boost social skills in people with ASD.

By targeting the part of the brain associated with autism, scientists have come closer to accelerating treatment for the disorder and have also found areas in which the technology can be improved.

Why the Disconnect?

The presence of autism is linked to a part of the brain called the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC), which is under-stimulated in people with ASD. The activity of this part of the brain is crucial for social interaction because it’s responsible for a host of human emotions.

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"It's also the part of the brain linked with understanding others' thoughts, beliefs, and intentions," Dr. Peter Enticott of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia told New Scientist magazine.

DmPFC activity has been linked to understanding others’ preferences, and making rapid evaluations about love interests, all of which people with autism are capable of, but may express in ways that are not deemed conventional in our society.

Magnetic Stimulation Decreases Anxiety, Boosts Social Skills 

Scientists used a process called repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) to deliver magnetic pulses to the scalps of adults diagnosed with either either high-functioning autism or Asperger syndrome in a double-blind study.

Some participants received 15 minutes of rTMS over a 10-day period, while a control group had coils placed on their heads and experienced the sounds and vibrations of the technology in a sham, placebo treatment.

In one month, participants who underwent rTMS saw improvements in their social skills, demonstrated by comparing the results of tests they completed before and after therapy. One of the most rewarding outcomes was a decrease in anxiety, which prevents many people with autism from participating in various kinds of social interaction.  

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However, computer tasks designed to measure mentalization, or the awareness of one’s and other’s mental states, did not show improvement after the therapy.

"It surprises me," Enticott said. "We are stimulating the region of the brain that is most closely associated with these tasks."

While the scientists had hoped that rTMS would be the answer to this and other issues in ASD, more investigation into the root causes of autism is in order.

"We need to figure out whether this is underpinned by changes to mentalizing ability, or whether there is some other thing at play," Enticott said.