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.
Goal Is MRI Autism Diagnosis
A major goal of this research and other autism imaging studies is to find ways to use brain imaging to distinguish between autism and other developmental disorders with similar early symptoms, such as speech delay and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Behavioral pediatrician Andrew Adesman, MD, tells WebMD that it is not yet clear if imaging will prove useful in the clinical setting.
Adesman is chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Steven & Alexandra Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York.
“That is the $64,000 question,” he says. “We are still pretty far away from that, and I don’t think this study brings us that much closer.”
Adesman says the fact that the Stanford study did not include children younger than 8 or children with Asperger’s and other non-autism disorders limits the interpretation of the findings.
Autism imaging researcher Nicholas Lange, ScD, says it remains to be seen if brain imaging can help distinguish between autism and other developmental disorders since most studies have compared autistic children to those who were developmentally normal.
Lange is an associate professor of psychiatry and biostatistics at Harvard Medical School.
Although he says he is optimistic that brain imaging will one day prove clinically useful, Lange adds that much more research is needed.