There has been a major breakthrough in the evolution of autism research, after scientists announced they may have developed an MRI brain scan which can categorically detect the condition.
Researchers at Harvard University’s McLean Hospital and the University of Utah think they have developed a product which can help young children with the disorder gain the assistance they need; the sooner autism is detected in the child, the sooner they can start to receive their treatment and improve their quality of life.
Autism is reported to affect one in every 110 children world-wide today, and the average age of detection is 36 months. Major symptoms of the condition include ineptness in communication, learning and social interaction.
The popular method of detecting autism today is quite primitive in comparison to other areas of science; a questionnaire - formed from “The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.” - poses specific questions to the patient and his/her parents; this means that detection can be quite a subjective decision and not based on any specific, biological evidence.
Professor Nicholas Lange – a psychiatrist at the Harvard Medical School - intimated that the scan was not quite ready for implementation in hospitals or clinics just yet, but his team believed they were not far away; the test is currently detecting the disorder with 94 per cent accuracy.
“It provides pictures and measurements of the microscopic fibre structures of the brain that enable language, social and emotional functioning, which can reveal deviations that are not found in those without autism,” Professor Lange revealed.
"There is less directional flow to and from brain regions where there should be more information exchange."
For the study, the staff at Harvard and Utah drafted 30 individuals between the ages of 8 and 26 who had autism, and 30 from the same demographic without the condition. Individuals with autism have a different balance in the way water flows through their brain and this is where the condition can be isolated with accuracy.
Dr. Janet Lainhart of the University of Utah said, “out of the 30 men with autism, we were able to correctly distinguish 28 of them”.
The research continued by testing 19 men, seven of whom had autism; the scan correctly identified the seven. It was also successful in tests with women, children under the age of eight and in adults over the age of 26.
Hope for the future
Both doctors stressed they were keen to test the scan on patients with high-severity autism, very young children and others with varying brain disorders such as ADHD and OCD. It is hoped that the scan will replace the rather subjective and frustrating questionnaire, sooner rather than later.
“It could also someday lead to pinpointing how autism develops," said Dr Lainhart. "We can gain a better understanding of how this disorder arises and changes over the lifetime of an individual, and derive more effective treatments.”
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