In Study, MRI Scans Detect Autism

In Study, MRI Scan 90% Accurate Identifying Autism

The full story cautions that this is merely one study, but it is interesting. From the story on CNN's website:

Scientists are finding more pieces of the autism puzzle of with the help of MRI scans of brain circuitry, according to a study published Thursday online in the journal Autism Research.

By scanning the brain for 10 minutes using magnetic resonance imaging, researchers were able to measure six physical differences of microscopic fibers in the brains of 30 males with confirmed high-functioning autism and 30 males without autism.

The images of the brains helped researchers correctly identify those with autism with 94 percent accuracy, says Nicholas Lange, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and one of the study authors.

"No one has measured what we measured," says Lange of the MRI test he and Dr. Janet Lainhart from the University of Utah developed.

While previous studies using different types of scans have been able to identify people with autism, Lange says, "no one has looked at it [the brain] the way we have and no one has gotten these type of results."

Lange is quick to caution that this type of test is not yet ready for prime time. "We do not want to give anyone false hopes that this is ready for the clinic yet. This method, this test, needs to be tried [and confirmed] with many more subjects outside our laboratory," he says. Plus, the research needs to be expanded to many more study participants and tried on younger people with autism and those who are not as high-functioning as the subjects in this first trial.

It is interesting and points to the physical nature of autism, which I consider important. If we can map which areas of the brain are at work (or not at work) in autism, that might help us with everything from therapies to prevention.


  1. The numbers the numbers the numbers

    There were 70 people on the number 10 "blue bus"

    Whither were they all going?

    Now tell us that you sapient ones?

    They might well have all been bound to the bus route, but whither where they going?

  2. In my view, identifying "autism" could help end the debate that the diagnoses are simply the latest trend, like ADHD appeared to be some years ago. I doubt all "autisms" will have a singular etiology, but any identification does, in a small way, validate autism as a physical, neurological condition -- and thereby challenges those seeking to dismiss moderate to high-functioning autism as a little more than media hype.

    The challenge we face is getting supports for students and adults with autism. Once identified, so what? What's next in life for those with diagnoses? Will we do enough to help people become the most productive and engaged they can be / want to be?

    I have no answers, of course.

    Then, you will have the "cure coalition" that wants to use science to remove any and all "defects" from people. They read these studies differently than I might, and that gets into an entirely different debate about whom and why research leading to "cures" is more important than research testing new therapies or educational strategies.

  3. Educating children with neurodevelopmental issues is complex, expensive and has uncertain outcomes.

    Genetic screening will be quick, cheap and reasonably likely to produce neurotypical children, presumably in the image of whomever formulates (pathological) autism.

    Instead of ein Herrenrasse of little Hitlers, we will have flocks of garrulous Bob Wrights with superlative social skills substituting for morals.

    Anyway, high IQ and autism is not a becoming trait: we're too aggressively logical to be accepted by the whoop.

    Despite this we are merely collateral damage in the war on Real Autism.

  4. Whilst it might be possible to isolate genuine neurological differences, the brain does not exist in a vat.

    Autism, underlying differences, etiology, whatever exist in society, and in particular as it affects ones communication and social interface is perhaps the most socially constructed disability of all.

    As I said elsewhere, even a broken leg has different meanings according to context.

    In one place it is an inconvenience to be fixed by modern medicine, in another it is a death sentence.

    The absolute idiocy of simply plugging in a scanner is that it will tell you nothing whatever about the person, the possible outcome, or much besides, other than perhaps confirm what was suspected anyway.

    I could scan the workings of two watches, one a vintage rolex and the other my trusty lorus (cheapo seiko) and you know which one will keep better time, and it won't be the Rolex. You can't turn the one into the other even if you were to swap the workings because they have different fundemental mechanisms so what does that tell you? It tell's you that they have different mechanisms, not that one of them would be a highly desirable piece of designer jewellery and the other a simple timepiece. Thus it is with autism, context is everything, not how the brain is different, or why (because that is beyond knowing) but why it has been felt necessary to do this research in the first place. It's the mirror of society, not knowledge per se.

  5. @Norton: I am assuming you are being sarcastic. However, as someone specializing in language development, including neurolinguistics, information can often be of assistance when considering pedagogy. If I can learn anything about how the mind masters language, that knowledge might be practical. How others use it, that's a social debate that must be ongoing.

    @The Author: I think we would define "meaning" differently. A broken leg is a broken leg. The "meaning" you mention to me is the "outcome" or the "probable consequence" in a social / cultural setting. Consequences certainly vary by context.

    If Norton is correct, the consequence of screening could be negative, if autism is viewed only as a defect, not a difference. I know I have defects, ones I wouldn't mind being "corrected" in some way. However, I don't want others making the determination for me.

  6. CS.,

    This genetic screening is unlikely to 'hit the streets' as a fully functional and reliable test.

    'It' will probably start by a pre-implantation screen of embryos belonging to a couple already with one or two severely autistic kids.

    'It' is likely to screen-out anything approaching a Systematising-minded embryo. The parents won't be bothered by this - they will just want a 'normal' baby.

    This is what will happen. I have it on good authority - His Imperial Majesty Baron-Cohen, himself.

    This is why he made his cack-handed attempt to start a debate last year.

    He's getting the collywobbles because he knows that he's standing at Ground Zero with his finger on the Button and is looking to shift the responsibility off his shoulders and onto Society.

    Also check-out his Molecular Autism 2010, 1:1doi:10.1186/2040-2392-1-1

    A recent economic analysis of the total annual cost of autism in the UK estimated this to be £28 billion, assuming a prevalence of 1% of the population

    Now compare to this from an earlier source:

    60,000 Reichsmarks kostet dieser Erbkranke die Volksgemeinschaft auf Lebenszeit. Volksgenoße, das ist auch Dein Geld.

  7. @Norton - One of my concerns about "national health care" is that any such system must "control costs" to prove itself to the masses and politicians. It doesn't matter if it is social democracy, as in France, or a "welfare state," as in the U.K. Eventually, someone starts complaining about the "costs" (financial, material, human, etc.) of the unusual.

    I don't like that Minnesota has genetic screening of all newborns, to go along with our state co-op insurance. The supposed benefit is that it can help parents make tough choices. How? The screening is done after birth right now. I suppose the next step is prenatal screening.

    Yes, societies since the dawn of man have eliminated the unusual. We keep sneaking past them, I suppose.

  8. As I’ve written elsewhere, we must also remind people that the MRI process and analyses performed at by the Utah researchers was not a standard MRI screening but rather a specialized scan looking at very specific data.

    From the press release:

    > “No one has measured what we measured,” says Lange of the MRI test he and Dr. Janet Lainhart from the University of Utah developed.

    > While previous studies using different types of scans have been able to identify people with autism, Lange says, “no one has looked at it [the brain] the way we have and no one has gotten these type of results.”

    The specific scanning was for water flow, not blood flow as is standard. It was also not a “heat map” that is commonly viewed by people as an “MRI” — those colorful maps we see coded by either blood flow, actual heat, or electrical activity.

    Most scanners are not set to scan for water flow. It is a custom application and one unfamiliar to most radiologists and technicians. Hence, the need to refine the method.

    > Using the MRI, the study authors measured how the water in the brain flows along the axons or nerve fibers in the parts of the brain that control language, social and emotional functioning. The scans revealed that the wiring of the brains of those with autism was disorganized compared with the brains of a typical person without autism. This is how they could determine which brains scans belonged those study participants with autism.

    You can’t just scan 1000s of people, since you do need the customization of MRI hardware and software, as well as the training to track the water flow patterns.


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