Early intervention is an important factor in treating autism. And while biological causes of autism continue to be a mystery, researchers have found for the first time a method using imaging that can accurately identify a neurological sign of autism in very young toddlers.

By scanning the brain activity of sleeping children, the scientists discovered that the autistic brains exhibited significantly weaker synchronization between brain areas tied to language and communication, compared to that of non-autistic children.

“Identifying biological signs of autism has been a major goal for many scientists around the world, both because they may allow early diagnosis, and because they can provide researchers with important clues about the causes and development of the disorder,” said Ilan Dinstein, Ph.D.

Historically, being a child has complicated research efforts as young children could not be expected to lie still without moving inside a magnetic scanner. Despite the hypothesis that the spectrum of autism disorders is characterized by a miscommunication between different parts of the brain, researchers could not prove it.

Scientists in the Weizmann Institute’s Neurobiology Department discovered a solution — study sleeping toddlers.

Prior studies have shown that even during sleep, the brain does not switch off. Rather, the electrical activity of the brain cells switches over to spontaneous fluctuation.

These fluctuations are coordinated across the two hemispheres of the brain such that each point on the left is synchronized with its corresponding point in the right hemisphere.

In sleeping autistic toddlers, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans showed lowered levels of synchronization between the left and right brain areas known to be involved in language and communication.

This pattern was not seen either in children with normal development or in those with delayed language development who were not autistic. In fact, the researchers found that this synchronization was strongly tied to the autistic child’s ability to communicate: the weaker the synchronization, the more severe were the symptoms of autism.

Remarkably, on the basis of the scans, the scientists were able to identify 70 percent of the autistic children between the ages of one and three.

The new procedure is expected to advance the care of autism and drive new forms of research and early intervention.

According to Dinstein, “This biological measurement could help diagnose autism at a very early stage. The goal for the near future is to find additional markers that can improve the accuracy and the reliability of the diagnosis.”

Source: Weizmann Institute of Science