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Opinion / Cross Talk

Can we ‘see’ autism in the brain?

2 July 2019

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.

The Experts:
Expert

Evdokia Anagnostou

Senior scientist, Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital

Brain structure does not parallel diagnostic labels but may relate to a specific pattern of behaviors.

Expert

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.

Expert

Alessandro Gozzi

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.

Expert

Ralph-Axel Müller

Professor of psychology, San Diego State University

We need statistical approaches for identifying subsets of autistic people, defined by their brain activity patterns.

Expert

Ruth Carper

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.


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