Researchers at Linköping University and the University of Gothenburg have developed a new brain imaging measure to identify autism in boys. The method opens up new possibilities to track progress and improve treatment.

Together with colleagues at Yale University and the George Washington University in the United States, LiU neurologist Malin Björnsdotter has developed a new method to map and track the function of brain circuits affected by autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in boys using brain imaging. The method provides a quantitative measure of activity in a brain circuit associated with social interaction.

“We can now measure how well this circuit functions in individual patients,” says lead author of the study Dr. Björnsdotter.

The study, recently published in the renowned journal JAMA Psychiatry, focuses on the use of biomarkers to measure the function of the social perception circuit of the brain.

“The behavioral symptoms of ASD are so complex and varied that it is difficult to determine whether a new treatment is effective, especially within a realistic time frame. Brain function markers may provide the specific and objective measures required to bridge this gap,” says Dr. Björnsdotter.

114 children and adolescents with and without an ASD diagnosis participated in the study. They were shown video clips of moving dots depicting human movement patterns during brain imaging. The researchers discovered that brain activity in the social perception circuits accurately detected ASD, but only in boys.

This new research has the potential to improve treatment for ASD by measuring changes in the social perception brain circuit in response to different interventions. The research is particularly relevant for ASD patients who are difficult to diagnose and treat by indicating whether behavioral, drug or a combination of the treatments will be most effective.

The authors emphasised that this research is still in the earliest days, pointing out that doctor’s offices and most hospitals do not have the specialised imaging equipment used by the team involved in this study.

“To really help patients we need to develop inexpensive, easy-to-use techniques that can be applied in any group, including infants and individuals with severe behavioural problems. This study is a first step toward that goal,” says Dr. Björnsdotter.

Publication: Evaluation of quantified social perception circuit activity as a neurobiological marker of autism spectrum disorder by Malin Björnsdotter, Nancy Wang, Kevin Pelphrey and Martha D. Kaiser. JAMA Psychiatry online first 20 April 2016. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2016.0219