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MRI May Become Diagnostic Tool For Autism

October 14, 2010
Written by: , Filed in: Diagnostic Imaging, Neuroradiology, Pediatric Radiology
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MRI may soon be able to diagnose autism, if University of Utah research continues to bear fruit.

Most recently, the researchers used functional MRI to identify areas where the left and right brain hemispheres of people with autism do not properly communicate with each other. Those communication problems show up in locations associated with motor skills, attention, facial recognition, social functioning, and other spheres in which autism symptoms manifest themselves. MRIs of people without autism do not show the same brain-communication problems.

“We still don’t know precisely what’s going on in the brain in autism,” said Janet Lainhart, MD, the study’s principal investigator. “This work adds an important piece of information to the autism puzzle. It adds evidence of functional impairment in brain connectivity in autism and brings us a step closer to a better understanding of this disorder.”

Dr. Lainhart is a University of Utah associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics. She was quoted in a university news release via EurekaAlert! The study will be published online Friday in the journal Cerebral Cortex. Her autism-research team includes University of Utah specialists in psychiatry, radiology, pediatrics, neurosciences, computing and imaging technology, and the brain, plus collaborators at Brigham Young University, the University of Wisconsin, and Harvard University.

No major structural differences in the brain have been discovered between those who have autism and those who do not, except that young children with autism have increased brain size. Studies have begun showing that the differences may instead lie in brain-connectivity abnormalities.

The Utah researchers hope to be able to distinguish biologically among different subtypes of autism.

“This is a complex disorder that doesn’t just fall into one category,” Dr. Lainhart said. “We hope the information can lead us to characterizing different types of autism that may have different symptoms or prognoses that will allow us to identify the best treatment for each affected individual.”

Related seminar: Pediatric Radiology—Clinical and Radiology Perspectives

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