Brain MRI Could Help Diagnose Autism

A brain scan might one day help diagnosis people with autism, according to a new study.

The results suggest, in people with autism, the two hemispheres of the brain have trouble communicating with each other, and these communication deficits can be seen using magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI.

While some cases of autism are clear cut and can be recognized by evaluating a child's behavior, other cases are harder to diagnose. The disorder — which is mainly characterized by difficulty communicating with others and an inability to behave appropriately in social situations — can vary greatly in how it manifests itself, researchers said.

"The more you talk to parents of autistic children, the more you hear these stories of delays in diagnosis because people just weren’t sure what their kid had," said study researcher Dr. Jason Druzgal, of the University of Utah School of Medicine.

The new study suggests MRI could one day be used, along with behavioral evaluations, to diagnose autism in these tough cases. The brain scan might also help distinguish between the varying types of autism a child may have.

"You might be able to diagnose more accurately, so you're able to get people into the appropriate therapy faster," Druzgal told MyHealthNewsDaily.

However, while the new study found some differences between autism patients and those without autism, in order to use MRI as a diagnostic tool, researchers would need to develop a more detailed way to distinguish between the two groups, Druzgal said.

And the youngest autism patients in the study were in their teens, so more work is needed to determine how the brains of younger patients differ from those of older ones.

Autistic brains

Autopsies of people with autism have suggested brain regions that are far apart may not be properly connected in these patients. The new study is one of the first to try and examine these long-distance connections using MRI.

Druzgal and his colleagues looked at changes in the amount of oxygen in the blood in opposite hemispheres of the brain. They looked for regions where these blood-oxygen changes were similar, or synchronized. Synchronized regions are thought to have similar neural activity. The study involved about 90 people, 53 of which had autism.

The brains of autism patients had less synchronization than the brains of those without autism, the researchers found. Less synchronization between brain areas suggests they are not communicating properly, Druzgal said.

The brain areas found to be out of sync in autism patients are associated with functions such as facial recognition, social functioning and attention — behaviors autistic patients have trouble with.

Easier test

Previous studies looking for brain abnormalities in autism patients have asked subjects to carry out tasks while in the MRI scanner, to identify brain regions that may be impaired in autism. But this method would present problems for a diagnostic test, as it would require patients to learn the tasks, which may be difficult for some.

But with the technique used in the new study, patients would simply be required to lie in a brain scanner.

"It would just be much more feasible to do in a clinical setting," Druzgal said.

The study will be published Oct. 15 in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

 This article was provided by MyHealthNewsDaily, a sister site to LiveScience.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.