Can Brain Imaging Detect Autism?

Can Brain Imaging Detect Autism?

Many researchers, scientists, doctors, therapists, parents, and caregivers agree that early intervention is the key to improving autism symptoms and helping children with autism reach a high-functioning state.  But can we detect autism early enough to make an impact?

Dr. Ledbetter at LSU Health Shreveport is investigating if brain changes and functioning can be seen after cognitive skills training, and through the use of MRIs and brain imaging, this study shows the impact of cognitive intervention.  Other studies around the world are looking at the brain for answers.

While autism is typically not diagnosed before age 2, researchers now suggest they can detect signs of autism as early as 6 months of age.  Researchers reporting for the American Journal of Psychiatry introduce fractional anisotropy, which measures the density of white matter in the brain, which is responsible for neuropathways and connections between various regions of the brain.

This brain imaging technology measures the diffusion of water through nerves to determine the density of myelin, which coats each nerve, connects nerves together, and suggests the density of neural connections within the brain.  The study involves 92 children from the Brain Imaging Study Network -- all infants were considered at high-risk for autism due to elder siblings with the disorder.  Scientists measured brain density at ages 6, 12, and 24 months, and compared the results to those children who ended up with a diagnosis of autism.

Results show that those children with an autism diagnosis had thicker and denser nerve fibers at 6 months of age than those who did not receive the diagnosis.  However, over time the condition reversed, and by age 2, the white matter was thinner than those who did not develop autism.

These results suggest there is something going on within the brain before behavioral symptoms develop -- the brain is not developing normally for individuals with autism.  This biological process is not limited to one region of the brain, which make sense due to the fact that autism symptoms affect language and behavioral interactions, which involve many areas of the brain and their connections.

This study is meant to identify those children with the highest risk for autism, and future studies will investigate children without a familial history of autism.  More brain imaging and study in this area will also lead to better therapies and treatment, and early detection will lead to early intervention.

Photo by jgmarcelino

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Written by: Candice Evans See other articles by Candice Evans
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