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MRI Shows Differences in Autistic Brain

Brain Imaging Could Prove Useful for Diagnosis
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Sept. 2, 2011 -- Stanford University researchers say they have identified key differences in the brain gray matter of children with and without autism. That could potentially prove useful in the diagnosis and treatment of the developmental disorder.

Using brain imaging, the researchers found that a specific network within the brain associated with social communication and self-regulation has a unique organization in autistic children.

The research team is the latest to attempt to identify differences in the brains of children with autism using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and other imaging techniques.

Using a specific strategy, the researchers were able to distinguish between the brains of autistic and typically developing children with 92% accuracy.

Imaging the Autistic Brain

According to the CDC, about one in 110 children in the U.S. has an autism spectrum disorder, which includes autism, Asperger’s syndrome, and related developmental disorders that affect the ability to communicate and relate to others.

The diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder is currently made on the basis of behavioral assessment, usually around age 2 or 3.

But several recent studies have raised hopes that brain imaging may prove useful for identifying the disorder earlier in life.

In the new study, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, the Stanford investigators analyzed MRI images of 48 children between the ages of 8 and 18.

Half the children had autism, but children with Asperger’s syndrome and other related disorders were excluded from the study.

The brain imaging analysis revealed differences in gray matter between children with and without autism in a key brain system, says Stanford professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences Vinod Menon, PhD, who led the study.

“It was striking because we saw the most differentiation between the two groups in this system that is involved in a number of different aspects of communication and self-related thought,” Menon tells WebMD.

The children with the most severe autism had the most profound brain structure differences, he adds.

Menon and his team hope to replicate the findings in larger groups of children and in younger children.

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