Early Detection of Language Struggles in ASDAutism spectrum disorder (ASD) is not quite the same for any two people, which can make it hard to diagnose and treat. A study from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine recently examined how toddlers with ASD process language. Their study identified brain activity indicative of children with ASD who develop relatively normal language skills and children with ASD with poor language outcomes. The results could lead to early detection and interventions for children with ASD.

The research team investigated whether the brain’s response to language in early childhood could predict later language skills. They used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to observe the neural responses to language of children between ages one and two—the earliest age at which the risk for ASD is detectable. Afterwards, they conducted comprehensive longitudinal and clinical assessments of the children’s language skills at ages three and four.

Two trends emerged from the fMRI data. Toddlers without ASD and toddlers with ASD who had relatively good language outcomes had similar brain activity patterns. They demonstrated a strong response to language in the temporal cortices, which is the brain region responsible for converting speech sounds to language. For toddlers with ASD who had poor language outcomes, the fMRI data showed diminished or abnormal activity in the superior temporal cortices in response to speech. The findings also indicate that the brains of ASD toddlers with poor language outcomes process speech much differently than the ASD toddlers with more typical language outcomes.

These brain activity patterns suggest that it could be possible to identify subtypes of ASD based on the neural response to language. This could help researchers develop new ways to identify and treat different symptoms of ASD.

Study co-author Karen Pierce, PhD, associate professor of neurosciences and co-director of the Autism Center of Excellences explains the significance of the results. “Our work represents one of the first attempts at using fMRI to define a neurofunctional biomarker of a subtype in very young ASD toddlers. Such subtypes help us understand the differences between persons with ASD. More importantly, they can help us determine how and why treatments are effective for some, but not all, on the autism spectrum.”

This research is published in the journal Neuron.

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