An autism diagnosis is based on behavior. But identifying a brain signature for the condition could help support diagnosis and even provide an early biomarker of the condition.
Knowing autism’s imprints in the brain may also shed light on biological mechanisms and point to targets for treatments. These imprints may be structural features or patterns of brain activity. Researchers can visualize both using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
But despite the decades of work, no one has found a characteristic brain structure or pattern of brain activity unique to autism. Brain imaging studies have turned up conflicting results, and few findings have been replicated. We asked five brain-imaging experts what they make of the lack of a solid result in this area. Is there a brain signature unique to autism, and if so, how might researchers find it? Here are their responses.
Senior scientist, Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital
Brain structure does not parallel diagnostic labels but may relate to a specific pattern of behaviors.
Christine Wu Nordahl
Associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, University of California, Davis MIND Institute
Before we throw in the towel, we need to include a greater diversity of autistic individuals in our studies and then define subgroups.
Senior Researcher , Instituto Italiano di Tecnologia
Brain imaging studies in mice suggest that autism is unlikely to be associated with a unique set of structural or functional differences.
Professor of psychology, San Diego State University
We need statistical approaches for identifying subsets of autistic people, defined by their brain activity patterns.
Associate research professor, San Diego State University
Brain differences in autism may be subtle, but we may be able to find them with more advanced technology.