The Cingulate Cortex and the Self: A Major Advancement in Diagnostic Research

two minute test for autism

Lately, there’s been a lot of debate regarding the efficacy of pediatricians’ diagnostic assessments of young patients who should be screened for autism.

Most of these diagnoses rely primarily on measures that are not quantifiable, meaning that they cannot truly be measured in scientific terms. Such tests are often unreliable and do not provide enough insight to reach firm conclusions regarding the child’s developmental state. Furthermore, these tests are often time-consuming and expensive for both the parents of the child being tested and the doctor. However, in an intriguing new study at Virginia Tech, researchers have discovered a potential option that may just take two minutes to test for autism.

According to researchers at VT’s Carilion Research Institute, there is a perspective-tracking response in the brain that acts as an excellent quantifiable marker, unlike emotions that are harder to measure. This response can be measured in the middle cingulate cortex, which is responsible for drawing distinctions between the self and others.

In their study, the experiments showed a group of children, both typically developing and on the spectrum, a series of images. Fifteen of these images were pictures of themselves while the other fifteen were pictures of other individuals. They found that those children who later tested positive for autism did not have particularly active responses in their middle cingulate cortex when they were shown images of themselves, indicating a lack of self-concept. However, the typically developing children showed an intensely elevated response. Over a series of trials, they found that these results remained consistent and thus indicated a reliable diagnostic method that clearly identifies the presence of autism within the brain.

The results of this study are very promising, though they require further development. However, it demonstrates a giant leap in the world of clinical diagnoses. Using responses in the middle cingulate cortex, as measured by fMRI’s could streamline efforts and strengthen doctors’ assessments by adding a mathematic component to their evaluation of the child in question. There is still a long way to go before this research at VT can reach such a stage, but thus far, trials show a promising development that could lead to earlier diagnosis and treatment for children on the spectrum.

Sara Power, Fordham University

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