SALT LAKE CITY -- A unique MRI scan of the brains of children who have autism might be the first step in developing an actual biological marker for the disorder. University of Utah researchers have tracked changes in communication between the two hemispheres of the brain.
When KSL visited the Carmen Pingree Center for Children with Autism Monday, 4-year-old Spencer Cline, who has what is called "high-functioning autism," was responding to therapy designed specifically for his level of autism.
Dr. Brent Peterson, who works at the Carmen Pingree Center, says autistic children have difficulty focusing on a face, especially the eyes.
"Children with autism look at faces, but not in the same way you and I do with that triangle of eyes and mouth," Peterson says. "They may be trailing off into the clavicle or up into the hairline and not really be reading the cues."
The facial example is among many socialization signals that are dispatched to the wrong places in the brain. Now, using an MRI, a University of Utah research team has visually monitored those miscues in two-second intervals, as measured in blood flow.
The scans are significant because they not only look at the brain as a whole, but they look specifically at the connection between the right and left hemispheres in the brains of young autistic males.
The images of a normal brain show very strong connections with brighter red and yellow colors, while blue and purple show weaker connections. In the scans of young autistic patients, the colors are much weaker.
In comparative scans, with blobs of red only, researchers documented the greatest differences between autism and normal volunteers. Young people without autism did not show the same deficits.
If these changes in blood flow -- which also mark underlying neurological activity -- hold up in studies of larger populations, the MRI scans might just draw researchers closer to a biological test for the disorder.
"The field is to the point where it's very likely that within the next couple of years all of this is going to happen," says Dr. Janet Lainhart, principal investigator for the University of Utah study.
"The earlier you start intervention -- so the earlier the diagnosis, the earlier you can get treatment -- the better the progress, long term," says Michelle Cline, Spencer's mother.
Michelle echoes the reactions of other parents. For Matt and Amanda Datson, who's son Cody has high-functioning autism, such a test could have saved heartache, precious time and lots of money.
"It would have shortened the process and probably the cost of all the different medical centers," Matt says.
Amanda agrees. "When you know your child has something, then you know where to go," she says.
If these MRI scans prove out, such a biological test, when combined with current diagnostic tools, might not only confirm what parents want to know but also the level of autism and the therapy designed for a particular child.
The autism research group includes University of Utah radiologists, pediatricians and researchers in neuroscience, the Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute and the Brain Institute. Collaboration also involved Brigham Young University, Harvard University and the University of Wisconsin.