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Magnetic Brain Mapping Detects Autism

April 18, 2013
Written by: , Filed in: Neuroradiology, Pediatric Radiology
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Measuring resting brain activity through magnetoencephalography (MEG) can detect autism in children, according to researchers from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland and the University of Toronto.

Roberto Fernández Galán, PhD, senior author of a study about the research, explained:

We asked the question ‘Can you distinguish an autistic brain from a nonautistic brain simply by looking at the patterns of neural activity?’ And indeed, you can. This discovery opens the door to quantitative tools that complement the existing diagnostic tools for autism based on behavioral tests.

Dr. Galán is an assistant professor of neurosciences at Case Western Reserve and the leader of the research team. He was quoted in a university news release. The open-access PLOS ONE published an article on the study online Wednesday.

The researchers examined 9 children diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome (which will become merely an unnamed part of the autism spectrum when the new DSM-5 is published next month) and 10 children without any known neurological problems. The Asperger’s children were ages 7 through 12; the controls were 6 through 14.

The study specifically measured brains at rest, looking essentially for background noise. As the PLOS ONE article says, “It is in this ‘noisy’ background where intrinsic aspects of each nervous system can be found.”

MEG (which detects the minute magnetic fields generated by electrical currents in the brain and which takes place in a room shielded from outside magnetic interference, including Earth’s magnetic field) showed differences between the two groups. In the Asperger’s children, researchers found significantly stronger connections between rear and frontal areas of the brain. And the electrical flow was asymmetric—more toward than from the frontal region.

That directional difference is significant. “It is not just who is connected to whom,” Dr. Galán said, “but rather who is driving whom.”

The researchers also found less complexity and structure in activity among the brains of children with Asperger’s. Overall, the MEG brain maps flagged the Asperger’s subjects with 94 percent accuracy.

This study probably doesn’t have any direct applications for clinical use. But it is at least a step forward in understanding autism, a disorder about which we know surprisingly little.

Related seminar: Pediatric Radiology

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