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Health, Science & Tech

Biological Autism Diagnosis Could Be Within Reach

Psychiatric disorders, including autism, are diagnosed by behavior and through questionnaires. But new research out of Carnegie Mellon University, published in the journal PloS One indicate that a biological-based diagnosis might become a reality.

With technology the researchers are using, they can directly see when thoughts are altered and what is spurring that change.

“If people are similar in how they represent thoughts, and if we can identify thoughts from their brain activation, then the rational was that maybe we could identify the altered thoughts of social interactions with people with autism. That was our study and it succeeded,” said Marcel Just, director for the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon and the lead researcher on this study.

Using a technique he developed with colleagues in 2008, they found a way to identify what someone is thinking about from their brain activation patterns.

They discovered that the activation patterns for a given concept were very similar across people. So if two people think of a banana, there is a very similar activation pattern happening. But with emotions and social interactions, the patterns were different.

“Hugging, or persuading or adoring or hating is different if you have autism,” Just said.

People with autism are known to have altered social interactions and their thoughts with their interactions.

 “It succeeded to such a great extent that we’re able to identify whether a person was autistic or not by the way that their brain activated social concepts,” Just said.

Almost all psychiatric illnesses are defined in terms of a thought alteration.

“In paranoia, there is heightened thought of persecution," Just said. "So if this technique can generalize, and that’s in the process of being tested, then maybe or possibly even all psychiatric illnesses could be diagnosed this way."