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Brain Scans May Help Detect Autism

Study Shows Functional MRI Images Differ Between Autistic Brain, Typical Brain

Functional MRI for Autism Diagnosis: Study Details continued...

Eventually, Hirsch says, diagnosing autism may be possible earlier by looking at these language differences using the scans.

"This is a starting point," she says. Many details are yet to be worked out, including looking at children at various levels of the autism spectrum. "Not all kids with autism have the same degree of language impairment," she says.

The average age in the two groups compared was about 12, she says. She is not certain how these findings would apply to younger children. Diagnosing autism as early as possible is crucial for early intervention and better outcomes, experts say.

The researchers also looked at another 27 children with autism who had routine MRI scans while they were sedated. Their average age was 8. Using the same scan technique, the researchers identified 26 of the 27 children with autism.

This shows the effect is still present under sedation, strengthening and extending the findings, Hirsh says.

Second Opinion

''The results are impressive and the accuracy level is uncommon for most imaging findings," says David M. Yousem, MD, director of neuroradiology at The Johns Hopkins Medical Institution in Baltimore.

He reviewed the study findings for WebMD.

However, he says, "it is unlikely that neurologists or neuropsychologists will be using functional MRI to diagnose autism. This really is a disorder that runs much deeper than how a child's brain responds to readings."

The research, when further along, may be most useful, he says, as a way to assess children with a questionable diagnosis of autism. The scans may also be helpful, he says, to evaluate how well medicine or counseling for autism is working.

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