Brain Scans May Be Diagnostic Tool for Autism, Study Says

Filed under: In The News, Research Reveals: Big Kids, Research Reveals: Tweens, Research Reveals: Teens

Brain Scan Photo

These scans were used to look for flaws in the brain's circuitry that could be used to detect autism. Credit: Autism Research

Given the choice, it's likely most parents would choose to subject their child to one 10-minute MRI scan in lieu of days of diagnostic interviews and clinical observation, when trying to diagnose a developmental condition such as autism.

If research findings published last week in the journal Autism Research pan out, brain scans may indeed be used in the future as a tool to detect autism in children, sparing anxious parents and children the prolonged period of anguish that currently characterizes the evaluation process.

By examining scans from a 10-minute MRI of the brain, the authors -- led by Nicholas Lange, director of the neurostatistics laboratory at Harvard Medical School -- were able to distinguish people with autism from other study participants nearly 94 percent of the time. The MRIs focused on two brain regions that contain circuitry central to language, emotion and social cognition -- areas that are known to be impaired in people with autism.

The researchers studied the brain scans of 30 males, 7-28 years old, with high-functioning autism and compared them to a control group of 30 people with typical development. Out of the 30 people with autism, 28 were correctly identified by the researchers' methods, and only three in the control group were incorrectly labeled as having autism. The MRIs showed differences between the two groups in how tiny fibers between nerve cells were organized, the newspaper reports.

Lange tells the Globe the analogy of electrical wiring between a lamp and a wall socket helps describe the findings.

"If the insulation on the wire is faulty, electricity cannot flow properly," he tells the newspaper. "In the same way, if the fibers between nerve cells in the brain are not well insulated with myelin, or if the fibers are disorganized, signals cannot travel as well."

The authors say they did not see differences between the brains of younger and older people with autism, which could suggest that problems in brain development may occur before 7 years old (the age of the youngest subject studied), the Globe reports.

Dr. Stewart H. Mostofsky, director of the Laboratory for Neurocognitive and Imaging Research and medical director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, tells the Globe the biggest differences in the MRIs were seen in the areas of the brain that are central to language.

"The critical issue is not distinguishing children with autism from typically developing children, but distinguishing children with autism from children with developmental language disorders or language impairment,'' Mostofsky tells the Globe. "It is certainly possible that the primary (difference) is not necessarily autism presenting, but rather the language impairments that are associated with autism.''

The researchers acknowledge some limitations in the current study and conclude that further studies are needed to compare the brains of autistic individuals with those of people who present with other developmental disorders, so they can be certain their findings are truly specific to autism.

"We all want to know what we can and cannot change about the disorder and how to improve the lives of people with autism,'' Lange tells the Globe. "This is a major step toward that goal and more research needs to be done before it is ready for clinical use.''

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