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13/06/24 | 12:09 am

Researchers develop advanced method for diagnosing autism

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) remains difficult to attribute to a single cause due to its diverse symptoms and severity. However, a study by University of Virginia (UVA) researchers offers a promising strategy for understanding autism and potentially other neurological diseases.

Current autism research often focuses on behavioral consequences, using techniques like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to map brain responses. However, limited research exists on the physiological causes of these responses. UVA researchers have utilized Diffusion MRI to observe how water moves through the brain and interacts with cellular membranes. This technique has allowed them to develop mathematical models of brain microstructures, revealing structural differences between autistic and non-autistic brains.

Benjamin Newman, a postdoctoral researcher at UVA and lead author of the study published in PLOS One, explains that this new approach examines the neuronal differences contributing to autism. Building on the work of Nobel laureates Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley, Newman and his team applied concepts of electrochemical conductivity to understand how neural conductivity differs in autistic individuals. Their findings indicate that these microstructural differences are related to participants’ Social Communication Questionnaire scores, a common diagnostic tool for autism.

The study suggests that differences in the diameter of brain microstructures in autistic individuals slow down electrical conduction. John Darrell Van Horn, a UVA professor and co-author, emphasizes the need for physiological metrics to better understand autism’s behavioral manifestations.

Unlike fMRI, which examines blood oxygen changes, this research delves into how the brain conducts information through dynamic networks. Van Horn believes this approach reveals unique differences in autistic individuals compared to typically developing controls.

Newman, Van Horn, and their co-authors, Jason Druzgal and Kevin Pelphrey, are affiliated with the National Institute of Health’s Autism Center of Excellence (ACE). The ACE initiative supports large-scale studies on ASD to determine its causes and potential treatments. Pelphrey highlights that the study lays the groundwork for a precision medicine approach to autism, providing a biological target to measure treatment responses and identify future treatment avenues.

Van Horn adds that this new tool for measuring neuronal properties could also impact the study, diagnosis, and treatment of other neurological disorders like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. The team is excited about the potential applications of this innovative technique.

(With agency inputs)

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