Research Published April 1 2016
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430 000 people are affected by autism in France,  25% of them are children. This pervasive developmental disorder appears during childhood and is characterised by difficulties in communicating with others, and develop social links.

Several research teams at the Institut du Cerveau – ICM are interested in understanding mental functions’ underlying mechanisms : motor, intellectual or emotional, at the origin of human’s behaviour.


Institut du Cerveau – ICM researchers have grouped various risk factors that may play a role in the development of pervasive developmental disorders in children, through the analysis of many studies on these pathologies. These risk factors are the use of medication during pregnancy, factors causing stress in mother and child, such as breech presentation during childbirth or child premature birth.

This analysis does not clarify whether these risk factors are the cause of these disorders or if they merely play a secondary role in the development of these disorders in children with a genetic vulnerability. However, it enables to guide research on the causes of autism.


Being imitated improves autistic patients’ social behaviours via activation of strategic areas of the brain. This is what is suggested by a study conducted by Institut du Cerveau – ICM researchers, through functional magnetic resonance imaging (Fmri).
The study conducted on six male adults with autism has consisted for researchers to mimic, or not, a hand gesture performed by patients whose brain activity was measured by Fmri.
Researchers observed activation of the right part of the insula in patients with autism when they are imitated, and a reduction of activity in brain areas working in an exaggerated manner in autism.

The insula area plays a central role in social behaviours and in the development of emotions.

By suggesting that imitating autistic patients has a therapeutic effect through modulation of specific brain areas, these results open new perspectives for the treatment of autism.


Institut du Cerveau – ICM is at the heart of The Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital and is in constant interaction with the Nervous System diseases center. Within this center, attached to the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Department, the IESHU, Interdepartmental Emergency Shelter Health Unit, welcomes autistic patients. This brand new unit opened in June 2012 and can take care of 7 patients.