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Scanning the Future: Autism and Brain Scans

As many parents will surely agree, one of the most challenging aspects of having a child with autism is that period where they begin exhibiting certain symptoms that might indicate some degree of autistic behavior and yet the parents are unable to have it conclusively diagnosed. After all, when diagnosing any psychiatric disorder in a small child, following the traditional method of asking them questions that might indicate abnormal brain behavior doesn’t exactly give conclusive proof.


However, if a group of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are right, it might be possible in the near future to diagnose autism and other psychiatric disorders with 97 percent accuracy. The researchers started off with the reasoning that since children with autism behave differently in social situations and exhibit general irregular behavior, there must be a portion of the brain where this abnormality can be pinpointed. Lead researcher Dr. Marcel Just and his team believe they have not only identified the area, but discovered that the abnormality can be observed through a regular brain scan.


Focusing on the area of thought creation within the brain, Just and his team conducted a study in which 34 subjects consisting of 17 high-functioning adults with autism and 17 neurotypical adults received fMRI brain scans while being asked to think of sixteen different words to describe such social situations as “kick,” “hug,” and “compliment.”


What Just and his team found was that although the neurotypical adults demonstrated activity in the area of their brains associated with self-representation, the adults with autism did not. This means that while the neurotypical adults were able to visualize the meaning of the words and put themselves into the various scenarios—and thus saw themselves as the one being hugged or kicked—those with autism were unable to envision the different words and scenarios with themselves as active participants in them.


In addition, upon further investigation, the team realized that the more affected an individual’s self-representation was, the greater difficulty they had at completing facial recognition exercises, which is a primary indicator of both autism and where one falls on the autism spectrum. By identifying a neurological marker that demonstrates a biological basis in a variety of psychological disorders, Just and his team just might have created a conclusive method in identifying autism, something that will be a boon to many parents struggling to determine whether their child has autism and how severe it is.


According to Just, “People with autism come off as different and strange and sometimes frightening. This finding shows a biological basis for it. It frames this behavior in terms of understandable, biological alterations versus a not understandable, almost mystical force.”


Of course, traditional psychiatric methods of identification still remain one’s best course of recognizing autistic symptoms in one’s children. As such, parents can arm themselves to recognize autism if their child exhibits deficits in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors and interest. But the fact that there might exist an objective and extremely accurate method for reading brain scans to identify autism is something that will give many people a sigh of relief.