A Brain-Scan Step Toward Better Autism Diagnosis

Photo: Albert Einstein College of Medicine

One of the many challenges that comes with autism spectrum disorder, researchers will tell you, is that there’s no “objective” way to diagnose the diseased based on biomarkers — that is, to say, “Well, his levels of X were very high, so we he definitely has ASD.” Instead, clinicians have to rely on behavioral assessments that can be a bitfuzzy and subjective. A new study from Albert Einstein College of Medicine researchers, though, used brain scans to take us a step closer toward better ways of diagnosing ASD.

From the press release:

Forty-three ASD children aged 6 to 17 were presented with either a simple auditory tone, a visual image (red circle), or a tone combined with an image, and instructed to press a button as soon as possible after hearing the tone, seeing the image or seeing and hearing the two stimuli together. Continuous EEG recordings were made via 70 scalp electrodes to determine how fast the children’s brains were processing the stimuli.

According to the researchers, there was a strong correlation between the amount of time it took participants to process auditory (but not visual) signals and the severity of their ASD symptoms. “This finding is in line with studies showing that, in people with ASD, the microarchitecture in the brain’s auditory center differs from that of typically developing children,” said lead author Sophie Molholm in the release.

In an email to Science of Us, Molholm expanded a bit on where her study fits into the broader context of autism research:

Our work shows that measuring brain activity with EEG has great potential for use in the diagnosis of autism. Clearly much work remains to be done, and ultimately it is likely that a composite of biomarkers will be needed to arrive at this point. Such biomarkers may include not only multiple assays of different aspects of brain function, but also genetic markers of risk.

Some of the research that we plan to pursue includes using these biomarkers to test whether targeted therapeutic interventions regulate sensory processing and improve multisensory integration in autism; testing if these biomarkers are applicable in even younger children with autism; and measuring the relationship of additional EEG measures of brain function and symptoms of autism.

In other words, it’s not like we’re on the cusp of brain scans and brain scans alone diagnosing autism, but they could be part of a broader technique. (And the “even younger children” thing is key, given how important it is to start treating autism early.)

If you want to learn more about the experiment, the college also released a video: