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MRI Scans May Help Test for Autism

Study Shows New Test Using MRIs May Be Useful in Diagnosis of Autism
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Dec. 2, 2010 -- Researchers may be getting closer to developing a test to diagnose autism spectrum disorder using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans.

Autism is typically diagnosed through observations, along with educational and psychological testing.

The new test, named the Lange-Lainhart test after the researchers who developed it, uses MRI scans to produce a detailed map of the brain’s wiring in the six regions responsible for language, social, and emotional function.

If validated in larger groups, this test may lead to earlier, more definitive autism diagnoses and help researchers get a better handle on some of the genetic roots of autism.

The new findings appear online in the journal Autism Research.

The CDC estimates that about one in 110 children in the U.S has an autism spectrum disorder, an umbrella term for a group of developmental disorders that can range from mild to severe and that often affect a person’s ability to communicate and relate to others.

The new imaging test was 94% accurate in pinpointing autism among 30 men aged 18 to 26 who had been diagnosed with a high functioning form of autism when compared with 30 men of the same age who did not have any signs of autism. The researchers repeated the test on another smaller set of participants, and it produced similar results.

More Work Needed on Test

The MRI autism test isn’t ready yet, says Nicholas Lange, ScD, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the neurostatistics laboratory at McLean Hospital in Boston. “Ongoing studies with more subjects in other people’s labs will help us learn how this test holds up in the broader population.”

The Lange-Lainhart test looks at the wiring of the brain in a very detailed way and can identify deviations in brain circuitry among people with autism, he says.

The new test will also be studied in other types of autism, younger children, and people with other brain disorders. Virtually every neurological and psychiatric disorder exhibits signs of faulty brain circuitry, so a test would need to be able to distinguish autism from other disorders.

The new MRI test is not the only medical or biological diagnostic test for autism in development. Blood and urine tests are also being looked at in the U.S. and abroad, as are other imaging tests.

While it’s not yet clear which test -- if any -- will make it to the finish line, autism experts agree that there is a need for a medical test to help diagnose autism.

“We don’t really know what autism is, and all we have at present is a subjective test that is used to diagnose the disorder which involves four-hour interviews with parents and one hour spent observing the child,” Lange says.

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