Early brain scans can reveal severity of autism

By Kate Hassett

Early brain scans can reveal severity of autism
Brain scans conducted on children with autism spectrum disorder can help to assess level of treatment needed to stimulate language function in the brain.

In a recent study conducted by the University of California, San Diego, researchers have discovered the difference in the language-important brain regions, in determining the outcome of language skills in autism spectrum disorder patients.

The research could provide assistance in determining how well, a child with autism spectrum disorder, may develop language skills, from as early as one year old.

The study was conducted by using MRI scans to look at the brain activity of 103 children while they listened to a spoken story. The children were all approximately between the ages of one and two – being the youngest age that children can be identified as being at-risk of autism.

A few years later, the same children, aged between the ages of three and four, were retested when their ability to understand and express spoken language skills could be assessed.

Out of the 103, 60 of the children had been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Twenty-four of these children had a considerably low score in language development, with 36 children performing at or average, on at least one of two ability tests.

These tests were then compared to their listening tests where their brain images were used against their language test scores.

These results depicted the difference in language-related brain activity between autistic children who had good language development and those with poor language development.

“If a toddler with autism spectrum disorder is detected with strong brain activation in language areas, I would predict this toddler would excel in treatment and have a good long-term outcome,” said study co-author, associate professor, Karen Pierce, co-director of the Autism Center of Excellence at the University of California.

Alternatively, poor activation in those language areas could act as a red flag to parents and clinicians, indicating that the child may need enhanced and more directed treatments.

However, while the tests can be beneficial to tailoring speech and communication treatments, it is stressed that those on the autism spectrum can vary in their level of communicative ability.

Christine Stephan, a parent of a non-speaking child with autism said;”Tests that measure language abilities for those who can’t speak, usually rely on the person’s physical ability to demonstrate understanding, without also making allowances for the motor differences that so many non-speaking autistics have identified as being a tremendous obstacle.”

The research also makes known that an over reliance on speech as an outcome of treatment, may stifle some parents’ understandings of their particular child’s autism and ways of communication.

Whilst more extensive research will be conducted using these results, their core prerogative – to help identify effective means of communication – is a step in the right direction.


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