Sense of Self detects ASDA new study had uncovered a quick method of identifying autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that could lead to a new way of diagnosing the disorder. The study, from Virginia Tech’s (VT) Carilion Research Institute, used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine a part of the brain that reveals an individual’s sense of self. By scanning this part of the brain, it is possible to detect a pattern related to ASD in as little as two minutes.

The study developed throughout the last decade as Read Montague, lead researcher, and his team delved deeper into a field Montague calls computational psychiatry. It started with a 2006 study in which in the researchers conducted MRI scans on pairs of people playing a turn-based game. The study led to the finding that a part of an individual’s brain—the middle cingulate cortex—is more active when it is that individual’s turn. Subsequent studies demonstrated that the middle cingulate cortex is more active when a person imagines herself taking part in an activity and that people with ASD exhibit lower levels of activity in this part of the brain.

In 2012, Montague’s team conducted a study that lead to defining what an individual’s self-perspective looks like in the brain. Those findings gave rise to the current study, in which children were shown 15 images of themselves and 15 images of other children, age- and gender-matched to each child. Some of the children had ASD and some were typically developing. The researchers monitored the activation levels in the children’s middle cingulate cortex using an MRI.

The typically developing children exhibited a high response in the middle cingulate cortex when looking at pictures of themselves. In contrast, the children with ASD exhibited a much smaller response when viewing images of themselves.

Montague, professor of physics and director of the Computational Psychiatry Unit at VT, explains that the findings point to a quick test for detecting ASD. “We went from a slow, average depiction of brain activity in a cognitive challenge to a quick test that is significantly easier for children to do than spend hours under observation. [The test] could also open the door to developing MRI-based applications for screening of other cognitive disorders.”

This research is published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.

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