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Brain Imaging Alone not Enough for Autism Diagnosis

Update Date: Nov 04, 2012 04:39 AM EST

McLean Hospital biostatistician Nicholas Lange, ScD, warns against depending on brain imaging scans alone for the diagnosis of autism and suggests that large, long-term multicenter studies should be conducted in order to identify the biological basis of the disorder.

"Several studies in the past two years have claimed that brain scans can diagnose autism, but this assertion is deeply flawed," said Lange, an associate professor of Psychiatry and Biostatistics at Harvard Medical School.

"To diagnose autism reliably, we need to better understand what goes awry in people with the disorder. Until its solid biological basis is found, any attempt to use brain imaging to diagnose autism will be futile."

While warning against the use of brain imaging as a diagnostic tool, he also endorses the use of this technology to help scientists better understand autism.

Lange points out that with the help of various brain imaging techniques, including functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET) and volumetric MRI, researchers have been able to make important discoveries related to early brain enlargement in the disorder.

"Brain scans have led to these extremely valuable advances, and, with each discovery, we are getting closer to solving the autism pathology puzzle," he said. "What individuals with autism and their parents urgently need is for us to carry out large-scale studies that lead us to find reliable, sensitive and specific biological markers of autism with high predictive value that allow clinicians to identify interventions that will improve the lives of people with the disorder."

Autism and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are a group of complex disorders of brain development. There are different degrees of the disorder, characterized by the level of difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors in the patient.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that one in 88 children suffer from ASD.

The article appears in the current issue of the journal Nature.

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