A type of brain imaging that measures the circuitry of brain connections may someday be used to diagnose autism, new research suggests. Researchers at McLean Hospital in Boston and the University of Utah used MRIs to analyze the microscopic fiber structures that make up the brain circuitry in 30 males aged 8 to 26 with high-functioning autism and 30 males without autism. Males with autism showed differences in the white matter circuitry in two regions of the brain's temporal lobe: the superior temporal gyrus and the temporal stem. Those areas are involved with language, emotion and social skills, according to the researchers.
Based on the deviations in brain circuitry, researchers could distinguish with 94 percent accuracy those who had autism and those who didn't. Currently, there is no biological test for autism. Instead, diagnosis is done through a lengthy examination involving questions about the child's behavior, language and social functioning. The MRI test could change that, though the study authors cautioned that the results are preliminary and need to be confirmed with larger numbers of patients.
"Our study pinpoints disruptions in the circuitry in a brain region that has been known for a long time to be responsible for language, social and emotional functioning, which are the major deficits in autism," said lead author Nicholas Lange, director of the Neurostatistics Laboratory at McLean Hospital and an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. "If we can get to the physical basis of the potential sources of those deficits, we can better understand how exactly it's happening and what we can do to develop more effective treatments."