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MRI Scans May Help Evaluate Asperger’s Syndrome

Researchers Use Advanced MRI Scans to Analyze Brain Activity of People With Asperger’s
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Dec. 6, 2010 (Chicago) -- Researchers are a step closer to developing new treatments that are tailored to the individual needs of people with Asperger’s syndrome and other types of autism.

The technique uses two advanced MRI scanning techniques to produce a detailed map of the brain’s wiring in six regions responsible for language, social, and emotional function.

The work is very preliminary. But the hope is that the approach will also lead to an imaging test that may help to diagnose autism, says Sophia Muller, MD, a radiologist at the University of Munich, Germany.

"The method could also potentially be used to evaluate whether drugs are working," she tells WebMD.

Symptoms of Asperger's Syndrome

Asperger's syndrome (AS) is one of two main types of autism that often goes unrecognized until late in childhood or even adulthood.

People with Asperger's syndrome often find themselves somewhat disconnected from others. Some people with Asperger's syndrome obsess over unusual things, and communication can be a great challenge. People with AS generally have difficulty interacting with others and often are awkward in social situations.

Currently, AS and other types of autism are typically diagnosed through observations, along with educational and psychological testing. There are no medications to cure Asperger's syndrome, although drugs may be used to treat specific symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, hyperactivity, and obsessive-compulsive behavior.

If the new findings hold up in larger studies, the sophisticated imaging scans can be used to pinpoint disturbed brain wiring and activity in people with Asperger's and other types of autism, thereby aiding in the diagnosis, Muller says. Drugs that target those brain regions can also be developed, she says.

The new test is not the only test in development for Asperger's syndrome or other types of autism. Blood and urine tests are also being looked at in the U.S. and abroad, along with MRI scans that may help diagnose autism.

Analyzing Results of MRI Scans

For the new study, Muller and colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (functional MRI) and diffusion MRI to study six major networks in the brains of 12 people with Asperger's and 12 people with no cognitive problems.

Functional MRI allows doctors to look at how blood flow increases in response to brain activity. Diffusion MRI, also known as diffuse tensor imaging (DTI), is used to look at connections between brain cells, thereby providing a road map of the brain.

The average age of the people with AS was 36 and the average age of the cognitively healthy people was 33. All underwent the imaging scans while they were resting, with their eyes closed.

Results of the scanning tests "provide the first links of disturbed functional connectivity patterns that are reasonably associated to the core behavioral problems of patients with Asperger’s syndrome," Muller says.
She presented the study here today at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.

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