Could Doctors Determine Whether an Autism Treatment Is Effective with a Brain Scan?

Children with autism each have unique behavioral challenges, and many different therapies have been developed to try to help. Parents often cycle through numerous therapies before finding one that works for their child, but this can take years, because parents have to give each therapy time to see if it works. This slow process may cause the child to miss out on important learning and social milestones, making it more difficult for him to catch up with his peers later. However, new research into brain scans may give earlier indicators about whether a therapy is working.


Swedish and American researchers teamed up to do a large study of children and adolescents on the autism spectrum. They used fMRI scans to look for biomarkers, or “measurable indicators of a biological condition,” that were tied to the brain’s social perception circuits. These circuits influence the way people understand and react to social situations, which is a difficulty for people with autism.


The researchers found that the fMRI showed impaired social perception circuits with about 75 percent accuracy in boys with autism. These biomarkers could be a way for doctors to more effectively monitor treatment options. In theory, doctors could take scans periodically and see if the circuits are improving. This could provide a quicker indication of whether the treatment is working than the traditional method of waiting and watching for consistent behavioral changes. The scans may also help with the initial diagnosis and give researchers important insight into how autism works in boys.


There are some drawbacks to this technique. It does not seem to work on girls with autism. Early intervention often helps children with autism, but these scans are not suitable for very young children. However, researchers are cautiously optimistic that they may help boys with autism.

Autism will probably never have a one-size-fits-all treatment approach, but brain scans may provide valuable insight to help develop the best intervention for each individual on the spectrum. Learn more about how high-tech scans may be able to improve outcomes for people with autism.

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