Studying the Brain’s Fundamental Drum Beat to Understand Autism

Originally published in Bench to Bedside, the CHOP Research monthly publication

I composed this original article based on an interview with the investigator.


A drum beat coordinating brain activity and thus organizing the music of life emerges from deep inside the human brain. This electromagnetic neural pulse —eight to 12 beats per second — is known as the resting-state alpha rhythm.

“Alpha rhythms may be the most fundamental brain rhythm, involved in coordinating brain processes from those as simple as hearing tones and those as complex as consciousness,” said  J. Christopher Edgar, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist and brain imaging researcher in the Department of Radiology at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Researchers have known for some time that electromagnetic (neural) brain activity is different in individuals on the autism spectrum. In a series of recent studies, Dr. Edgar and colleagues have shown that the resting-state alpha rhythm is stronger among individuals on the autism spectrum, and that stronger alpha rhythms are associated with more severe clinical symptoms.

With a new grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Dr. Edgar will use state-of-the-art noninvasive brain imaging called magnetoencephalography (MEG) scanning to measure brain activities, including alpha rhythms, and magnetic resonance imaging to obtain structural brain measures in adolescents with and without autism spectrum disorder (ASD). He aims to find out why that metaphorical drum beat, setting the pace for the activities of other players or different parts of the brain, sounds different in children on the autism spectrum.

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