October 1985

Brain-stem Dysfunction in AutismResults of Vestibular Stimulation

Author Affiliations

From the Mental Retardation and Child Psychiatry Division, Department of Psychiatry (Drs Ornitz and Westlake and Ms Kaplan) and the Brain Research Institute (Dr Ornitz), UCLA School of Medicine; and Pitzer College, Claremont, Calif (Dr Atwell). Dr Atwell is now with the National Eye Institute, Bethesda, Md.

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1985;42(10):1018-1025. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.1985.01790330102012

• Responses to vestibular stimulation can, under well-controlled experimental conditions, provide a measure of brainstem function. Autistic children had significantly longer time constants during the primary nystagmus response and significantly fewer beats during the secondary response than normal children when stimulated with constant angular acceleration in complete darkness. These findings could not be attributed to gross differences in arousal, to developmental retardation, to associated clinical conditions, or to either the influence of vision or habituation. Rather, they are suggestive of a neurophysiologic dysfunction, perhaps involving the brain stem, and may be an expression of the process that underlies those autistic behaviors that suggest faulty modulation of sensory input and motor output. Brain-stem centers moduate both general sensory input and motor excitation and may play a role in the elaboration of the more complex adaptive and motivated behaviors that are also disturbed in autism.