Early autism diagnostic test on the horizon

Soon scientists may have a test to diagnose autism spectrum disorders using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. As of now this dreaded developmental disorder is typically diagnosed through observations, along with educational and psychological testing.

The new test called the Lange-Lainhart test after the researchers who developed it is slated to use MRI scans to produce a detailed map of the brain’s wiring in the six regions responsible for language, social, and emotional function. Previous work has suggested MRIs could be used to diagnose autism. A study published in October in the journal Cerebral Cortex found that changes in oxygen levels in the brains of people with autism were less synchronized than in the brains of people without the disorder, meaning areas of the patients’ brains were not signalling properly. These oxygen changes can also be seen in an MRI of the brain, according to University of Utah researchers.

This new test was 94% accurate in pinpointing autism among 30 men aged 18 to 26 who had been diagnosed with a high functioning form of autism when compared with 30 men of the same age who did not have any signs of autism. The researchers repeated the test on another smaller set of participants, and it produced similar results. At present it is being validated in large populations and if successful it can lead to earlier, more definitive autism diagnoses and help researchers get a better understanding of some of the genetic origins of autism. The new findings appear online in the journal Autism Research.

At present one in 110 children in the U.S has an autism spectrum disorder according to CDC estimates affecting a person’s ability to communicate and relate to others.

According to Nicholas Lange an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the neurostatistics laboratory at McLean Hospital in Boston, “Ongoing studies with more subjects in other people’s labs will help us learn how this test holds up in the broader population.” He explained that it can help every neurological and psychiatric disorder. He said, “We don’t really know what autism is, and all we have at present is a subjective test that is used to diagnose the disorder which involves four-hour interviews with parents and one hour spent observing the child,” Adriana Di Martino assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, is cautiously optimistic about the new findings. She said, “before we talk about a test that can be used clinically, we need [to study] a large group of subjects with autism and other diseases… I would not go saying there is now a test to diagnose autism with MRI, but we may get there in the future… A really accurate and valid test or biomarker will aid the process, but it is unlikely that this will substitute for the work of a psychologist… The work of the psychologist in observing the child is still crucial.”

Kevin Pelphrey , the Harris Associate Professor of Child Psychiatry and Psychology at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn said, “Autism isn’t reliably diagnosable before age 2 and that is at state of-the-art centers, but if we had an objective diagnostic measure we could do it earlier.” He added that behavioral observation of people with autism is “magnificent, but crude compared to what one can do with a quantitative measure like looking at the brain.”

Lange concluded, “We don’t want to give false hope that someone can go into a clinic now and do this…but it is the best thing so far, and builds upon others’ work.”

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.


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