Functional Connectivity MRI Helps Detect Autism

Photo by: robinvanmourik/Flickr

Researchers have revealed a new type of brain scan which measures a child’s mental development in relation to their age.  By being able to view if a child’s development is on schedule, the researchers believe that this brain scan will be able to identify various developmental disabilities like autism.

The Functional Connectivity MRI brings up images that reveal which areas of the brain are communicating and how much communication is going on between them.  Nico Dosenbach of Washington University in St. Louis explained that this differs from a regular MRI, in that regular MRIs focus on structure instead of connectivity.  Researchers can tell by looking at the images which connections are growing as a child matures, and which connections are not.

The functional connectivity MRI takes only 5-minutes to complete.  Additionally, the child does not need to perform any tasks to measure what’s happening in his brain.  An unfortunate drawback is that the MRI will mainly be used to study autism in older children.  It’s difficult for researchers to pick up on abnormalities in the brains of very young children whose brains are still maturing.

Dosenbach elaborated on why this type of MRI will be of much greater assistance to those with developmental delays: “That’s because the problem isn’t usually with the brain structures themselves. Instead, the trouble comes from the way those structures are communicating with each other.”

The researchers developed a ‘brain age scale’ based on the test results of 200 subjects between 7 and 30 years of age.  None of the subjects had developmental disabilities.

Ralph-Axel Muller, a psychologist who has direct experience studying autism with use of the functional connectivity MRI said: “I think functional connectivity can tell us a lot about the brain mechanisms that ultimately explain why children and adolescents with autism behave in the way they do.


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