Think of the word hug, what comes to mind? Do you picture a friend or loved one embracing you in a time of need? Do you feel warm and content? Do you feel relaxed? Or does the word hug make you think about the action of clasping ones arms tightly around someone? For most people, words like hug, adore and compliment are associated with emotions (in this case positive ones) but for someone with autism, often times the emotion of these words is lost and leaving behind the action in its purest definition. This is often referred to as a lack of self or the inability to put oneself in a situation; in fact the word autism is derived from the Greek word autos, which means self. Autistic people lack the ability to answer questions like ‘how does this make you feel?’ and new research suggests that this lack of self may come from changes in the way the brain functions and may be used to help diagnosis people with autism or other psychiatric disorders in the future.
The research, published by researchers out of Pennsylvania, scanned the brains of autistic people and non-autistic people when they were read words with emotional attachments to them (like hug, hate, and compliment). The researchers used a special kind of scan, called functional magnetic resonance imaging (or fMRI), which is like a standard MRI but can also measure the changes in blood flow in the brain. These changes in blood flow have been associated in the past with changes in brain activation. The more active an area of brain, the more blood will go there (nice video here). So when the researchers asked the participants to think about words with emotions attached to them, like hug, compliment or insult, they saw parts of the brain light up on the fMRI indicating that those regions were being activated and those parts did not light up when the words had no emotion (like kick or walk). The interesting thing about the results was that autistic people lacked or had less activation in a region of the brain known as the posterior cingulate/precuneus in response to those words with emotion. Now that may not mean much to you, but this region of the brain has been shown to be important in emotional formation and processing, learning, memory and more importantly, mental imagery concerning the idea of self. This is a great find since it points to a region of the brain that may be altered in people with autism. The researchers then took a step towards eventually using this result as a tool for diagnosis. They taught a computer to recognize the patterns of activation they found in autistic people and non-autistic people in order to have it come up with a set of criteria for identifying if someone was autistic. When the researchers then got the computer to use this new found knowledge to diagnosis their patients as autistic or not, the computer got it right 97% of the time, only misclassifying one subject. This is exciting since it may be one of the first ever markers for autism, called a biomarker. Cancer is an area where a lot of research has gone towards finding biomarkers and it has allowed doctors to test for certain types of cancer in a blood sample. This type of marker for autism could prove valuable in making sure people get the proper care as soon as possible.
There still is plenty of work to be done before a test like this becomes a valid tool for detecting autism. For one, the study was done on a relatively small number of participants (17 with autism and 17 without). Second, the people who had autism in this study were high-functioning meaning they were not as impaired as some of the more severe cases of autism. As such, it is unknown if this technique would be able to identify more severe autistic cases or even if people with more severe autism would go into an fMRI machine for the measurement (this measurement can cause claustrophobia in some people). The results in this paper also still need to be validated in a different group of autistic people to make sure that the technique is applicable to a larger group of people and not just the result of some bias. Either way, it is a fascinating study that shows promise in not only identifying someone with autism, but also in helping identify structural changes that may occur in the brains of people with autism. That’s pretty exciting stuff from a simple word three-letter word.