A biological thought-marker for autism


Psychiatric disorders of thought, such as autism, are usually diagnosed on the basis of a clinical
assessment of an individual’s verbal and physical behaviour, but researchers from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), Pittsburgh, USA believe they’ve discovered a new tool capable of predicting autism diagnoses with 97 per cent accuracy.

The CMU study, published in PLOS One, asked whether, by detecting changes in the way certain concepts are represented in the brains of autistic individuals, it is possible to distinguish them from
control participants.

The research team, led by Marcel Just, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the brain activation patterns of 17 young adults diagnosed with high-functioning autism and a matched
control group. Participants were asked to think about the referent of eight social interaction verbs – compliment, insult, adore, hate, hug, kick, encourage, humiliate – from two perspectives: as the agent of the
action and the recipient.

The study found that when asked to think about persuading, hugging or adoring, the neurotypical participants put themselves into the thoughts – they were part of the interaction. For those with autism,
however, the thought was more like considering a dictionary definition or watching a play.
‘We found that we could tell whether a person has autism or not by their brain activation patterns when they think about social concepts,’ Just said.

‘This gives us a whole new perspective to understanding psychiatric illnesses and disorders. We’ve shown not just that the brains of people with autism may be different, or that their activation is different, but that the way social thoughts are formed is different. We have discovered a biological thought-marker for autism.’



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