The brains of individuals across the autism spectrum are strikingly similar to each other, yet they look dramatically different from those of typically developing people, researchers said for the first time Wednesday.

The findings published online in the journal Nature could help scientists better understand what causes autism and how the disorder may be treated in the future.

For the study, researchers looked at brain tissue postmortem from 19 individuals with autism and 17 without. In the typically developing brains, the frontal lobe — which influences judgment, creativity, emotion and speech — differed significantly from the temporal lobe, an area responsible for processing sound, hearing and language. But in the brains of those with autism, the two regions were nearly identical.

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“If you randomly pick 20 people with autism, the cause of each person’s disease will be unique,” said Daniel Geschwind of the University of California, Los Angeles who headed the study. “Yet when we examined how genes and proteins interact in autistic people’s brains, we saw well-defined shared patterns. This common thread could hold the key to pinpointing the disorder’s origins.”

Geschwind and his colleagues say further research is needed to look at variances in other regions of the brain.