New scan tech may detect autism better

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Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex condition characterized by a variety of symptoms and degrees of severity, making it challenging to pinpoint a single cause.

Researchers from the University of Virginia have embarked on a promising new direction in autism research, as detailed in a recent study published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Their innovative approach not only enhances our understanding of ASD but also holds potential for advancing research into other neurological disorders.

Traditionally, autism research has largely focused on observing the behavioral outcomes of the disorder, often utilizing tools like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to map brain activity in response to various stimuli.

However, these methods provide limited insight into the underlying causes of the observed behaviors.

The research team at UVA’s College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences has adopted a different strategy by employing Diffusion MRI, a technique that tracks how water molecules move through the brain.

This approach allows researchers to observe the interaction between water and the cellular structures within the brain, providing a window into the underlying brain architecture of individuals with autism compared to those without.

Benjamin Newman, a postdoctoral researcher at UVA’s Department of Psychology and lead author of the study, explained that their work involves developing mathematical models to describe these brain microstructures.

This modeling has revealed distinct structural differences in the brains of individuals with autism, which could be key to understanding the disorder’s etiology.

The team’s research builds on foundational work by Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley, who received the 1963 Nobel Prize in Medicine for their description of how neurons conduct electrical signals.

Applying these principles, Newman and his colleagues have explored how these electrical properties differ between autistic and non-autistic individuals. They discovered variations in the diameter of neural components, which appear to affect the speed at which neurons conduct electricity.

This discovery is significant because it links microstructural brain differences directly to the core communication challenges faced by individuals with ASD, as indicated by their scores on the Social Communication Questionnaire, a commonly used diagnostic tool for autism.

John Darrell Van Horn, a professor of psychology and data science at UVA and co-author of the study, highlighted the importance of moving beyond behavioral observations to understand the physiological basis of autism.

This shift to more objective, physiological metrics could lead to more accurate understanding and diagnosis of ASD.

Moreover, Van Horn pointed out that while a lot of research has used fMRI to study brain function in autism, their approach delves deeper into the fundamental ways the brain processes information.

This could fundamentally change how we understand the neural dynamics of ASD.

The study is part of a broader effort by the National Institute of Health’s Autism Center of Excellence (ACE), where Newman, Van Horn, and their colleagues aim to pave the way for precision medicine in autism care.

Kevin Pelphrey, a principal investigator in the study and a neuroscientist specializing in brain development, emphasized that their findings lay the groundwork for identifying biological targets to evaluate treatment responses and develop future therapies.

The implications of this research extend beyond autism, suggesting potential applications in the study, diagnosis, and treatment of other neurological conditions like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

This marks a significant step forward in the field of neurological research, providing a new tool for measuring neuron properties and opening up new possibilities for understanding and treating a range of neurological disorders.

If you care about autism, please read studies about a new cause of autism, and cats may help decrease anxiety for kids with autism.

For more information about health, please see recent studies about vitamin D that may hold the clue to more autism, and results showing strange eating habits may signal autism.

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