Friday, May 28, 2010

Scanning Babies for Autism

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to peer at images of the children's brains, researchers from the University of California, San Diego, found that autistic children as young as 14 months use different brain regions than youngsters with more typical development when hearing bedtime stories.
The findings suggest that even very early on, the brains of those with autism work differently than typical babies. They also help explain why failure of language comprehension is a "red flag" for babies with autism, according to the study's author, Eric Courchesne, director of the UCSD Autism Center of Excellence.
This type of work "is going to tell us an awful lot about how the brain goes wrong in the first place and then gives us insight into how we'll be able to help at an earlier age," says Dr. Courchesne.
Learning when and where brain changes occur can also help rule out some suspected causes of autism. For instance, if brain differences are already present at birth, then environmental toxins or vaccine exposure in childhood can't be responsible, according to Dr. Courchesne.
This study showed that in the typically developing babies, both the right and left temporal regions of the brain—parts that help us understand different aspects of language—were activated. In older children, there was evidence that the left side became even more active compared with the right side.
But in the babies and children with autism-spectrum disorders the use of the right brain was far stronger.
The left temporal region of the brain usually deals with understanding the meaning of words, in a "dictionary" manner, he says. The right side helps us understand social language based on context, like how people sound when they are angry rather than happy, even if they're speaking the same words.
One theory is that in autism, the right side is needed to learn the basic definitions of words, crowding out the ability to develop skills to process more social, nuanced aspects of language, Dr. Courchesne says.

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