Study: MRIs can identify autism

NEW YORK — Doctors diagnosed autism in children by using MRI to track brain circuit activity, according to research that suggests the method may help speed up detection and add to knowledge of the disorder's biological base.

In a study of 60 children, half with mild autism and half with no autism, researchers identified the condition 94 percent of the time using magnetic resonance imaging, according to a study online this week in the journal Autism Research. The scans helped show how information moves and is processed in the brain.

About one in 110 children in the U.S. have an autism spectrum disorder, a developmental disability that can impair behavior, communication and social interaction, according to the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. By using MRI, doctors were able to see thought activity by following the path of electrical impulses in the brain.

"We, for the first time, are able to begin to really see what is going on in the brain in children who have autism," said Janet Lainhart, an associate professor at the University of Utah. "That is usually the beginning of major advances in recognition, treatment and prevention. This type of research basically brings autism into modern medicine. Much more work needs to be done, but that's exactly where it needs to go."

The findings build on earlier research of brain imaging to determine autism and may lead to a way to help doctors identify the disorder earlier, the researchers said. Current methods rely on interviews and observations.

The researchers from Harvard University, the University of Utah, Brigham Young University and the University of Wisconsin used a MRI test on 30 males ages 8 to 26 years old who had high functioning, or mild, autism and also on 30 males who didn't have autism.

Using the scan to identify who has autism may also allow researchers to go back and study patients to help find possible genes that may have increased their vulnerability to the disorder, he said.

Marguerite Colston, vice president for constituent relations at the Autism Society, an advocacy group, said the organization hopes studies like this will ultimately lead to earlier diagnosis of autism for all children. Currently, the average age of autism diagnosis in the U.S. is 4 years old. The group is striving to cut the age of diagnosis in half, she said.