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MRI Scans May Help Test for Autism

Study Shows New Test Using MRIs May Be Useful in Diagnosis of Autism

More Work Needed on Test continued...

This test only measures the child’s behavior and cognitive ability and is subject to a doctor’s call, he says.

Adriana Di Martino, MD, an assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, is cautiously optimistic about the new findings.

But, Di Martino says, “before we talk about a test that can be used clinically, we need [to study] a large group of subjects with autism and other diseases.”

“I would not go saying there is now a test to diagnose autism with MRI, but we may get there in the future,” she says.

“A really accurate and valid test or biomarker will aid the process, but it is unlikely that this will substitute for the work of a psychologist,” she says. “The work of the psychologist in observing the child is still crucial.”

Such a test could also lead to earlier diagnosis than is currently possible, she says. Autism signs can sometimes be picked up at 18 months or younger, but a reliable diagnosis is usually not made before a child turns 2.

Treatment Potential

Earlier diagnosis and intervention can have dramatic effects on treatment outcomes among some children with autism, she says.

That would be an important use for a test like the one in the new study, saysKevin Pelphrey, PhD, the Harris Associate Professor of Child Psychiatry and Psychology at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn.

“Autism isn’t reliably diagnosable before age 2 and that is at state of-the-art centers, but if we had an objective diagnostic measure we could do it earlier,” he says.

Behavioral observation of people with autism is “magnificent, but crude compared to what one can do with a quantitative measure like looking at the brain,” Pelphrey says.

There are other implications as well, he says.

Brain imaging could also help uncover the genetic basis of autism by finding patterns among people with autism and their unaffected family members, he says.

A brain scan could also help classify types of autism among people who already have a diagnosis. A better picture and understanding of the nuances in brain’s wiring may also help doctors better target their treatments.

“We could also look at subtle cases where you are not sure and autism is one of the possibilities, but we will never see a situation where we scan every baby who is born to see if they are at risk for autism,” he says.

“In a few years with studies like this continuing to come out, we will be in a place where we will have brain diagnostics, but they will never replace behavioral observations,” he says.

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