Autism has also been linked to dysfunction of the amygdala, a brain structure involved in processing emotions.
Humans with autism often show a reduced frequency of social interactions and an increased tendency to engage in repetitive solitary behaviour.
Lead researcher David J Anderson, a Biology professor at the California Institute of Technology and his colleagues discovered two intermingled but distinct population of neurons in the amygdala.
One "social neurons" population promotes social behaviour such as mating, fighting or social grooming while the other "self-grooming neurons" population controls repetitive self-grooming - an asocial behaviour.
To study the relationship between these two cell types and their associated behaviour, researchers used a technique called optogenetics.
Anderson's team was able to selectively switch on the neurons associated with social behaviour and those linked with asocial behaviour.
"Surprisingly, these two groups of neurons appear to interfere with each other's function: the activation of 'social neurons' inhibits self-grooming behaviour while the activation of 'self-grooming neurons' inhibits social behaviour," Anderson noted.
In autism, there is a decrease in social interactions and there is often an increase in repetitive, sometimes asocial or self-oriented behaviour - a phenomenon known as perseveration.
"By stimulating a particular set of neurons, we are both inhibiting social interactions and promoting these persistent behaviours," Anderson said.