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Brain Scans of Social Cues, Like Hugs, May Improve Autism Diagnoses

The Short of It

In a new study at Carnegie Mellon University, researchers found that brain scans and a computer formula can be used to identify individuals who have autism with 97 percent accuracy. In the future, the technique could be used in combination with traditional methods, which are based on behavior checklists.

The Lowdown

Currently, psychiatric disorders are diagnosed based on a clinical behavioral assessment, a process that's highly susceptible to nuance and interpretation.

Parents of toddlers who are suspected of having autism are asked: "If you point at something across the room, does your child look at it," and "does your child play pretend or make-believe?" This can be hard to differentiate between normal and abnormal.

The new research has created a more decisive way to diagnose by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to track the brain activity while asking subjects to think about words associated with social cues, such as "persuade," "adore" and "hug."

Half of the participants were diagnosed on the less-severely affected end of the spectrum. The others did not have autism. The brain images from those not affected showed clear activation in parts of the brain associated with self-awareness. Brain scans of those with autism showed less activation.

People with autism behave differently in social situations than other people. The ability to tune in to the thoughts and feelings of others does not develop in the same way as their peers. Something is different in their thought process, and the difference is in the brain.

The Upshot

This study is consistent with growing research that shows that individuals with autism have different brain activity patterns than those without. Maybe it can lead to an objective tool to aid diagnoses in the future.

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