Brain Scans May One Day Diagnose Autism

Filed under: In The News, Special Needs, Health

Brain Scans

Technology may soon lead to autism discovery via scans. Credit: Getty Images

Someday soon a brain scan might be able to tell you why your child is obsessed with trains and incessantly quotes "The Simpsons."

He may have autism, and a scan of his brain may confirm it. Just don't be surprised if Thomas the Tank Engine shows up in there.

"We know now it is possible to objectively differentiate the autistic brain from the typical brain using a functional MRI imaging technique," researcher Joy Hirsch, a professor of neuroscience and director of the Functional MRI Research Center at Columbia University Medical Center, tells WebMD.

Knowing it's possible is a big deal, she adds. Now, technology just needs to catch up.

"It's an important advance, but it's not there yet," she says.

Hirsch knows because she and her team of researchers wanted to document language problems in autistic kids with brain scans.

"The idea of the study was to determine if functional imaging, which looks at both structure and function of the brain, could provide a diagnostic indicator of autism," she tells WebMD.

Autism is currently diagnosed subjectively by observing kids' behavior and development.

Hirsch's team scanned the brains of 12 kids diagnosed with autism who have language problems. As a control, they also scanned 15 kids without autism.

"We had them listen to narratives that were recorded by their parents," Hirsch tells WebMD. The scans measured their brain activity as the children listened to the narratives and encoded speech.

"We hypothesized that the autistic children would encode the language narrative less efficiently than the normal population," Hirsch tells WebMD.

Among autistic kids, they found less brain activity in the superior temporal gyrus -- an area of the brain associated with sentence comprehension.

Eventually, Hirsch tells the website, diagnosing autism may be possible earlier.

"This is a starting point," she says.

David Yousem, director of neuroradiology at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institution in Baltimore, is not so sure.

"It is unlikely that neurologists or neuropsychologists will be using functional MRI to diagnose autism," he tells WebMD. "This really is a disorder that runs much deeper than how a child's brain responds to readings."

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