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Magnetic resonance image tests have allowed researchers to identify the symptoms of autism and analyze the ways in which the condition affects cognitive processing, according to a new study.
A study published in the December 14 issue of the journal Brain found that MRI tests were able to identify distinct differences in the brain activity of autism patients when they were engaged in self-reflective thought, Science Daily reports.
The team of British researchers, led by Michael Lombardo of the Autism Research Center at the University of Cambridge, measured the cognitive function of 66 males, half of whom were diagnosed with autism, while they answered questions about their own thoughts, opinions and physical characteristics or those of the Queen of England.
Specifically, the scientists focused the MRI tests on an area of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VPC), which has previously been found to be linked with thoughts about oneself.
The researchers found that non-autistic volunteers exhibited more brain activity in the VPC when they were asked questions about themselves than when they thought about the Queen. However, the cognitive response was unchanged in those with autism throughout the questioning, according to the news source.
"Navigating social interactions with others requires keeping track of the relationship between oneself and others," said Lombardo.
He continued, "The atypical way the autistic brain treats self-relevant information as equivalent to information about others could derail a child's social development, particularly in understanding how they relate to the social world around them."
According to the National Institutes of Health, the Checklist for Autism in Toddlers, the Autism Screening Questionaire, hearing evaluations and blood lead tests are the most common screening methods to diagnose autism in young children.
Autism by the numbers
According to figures released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about one in every 100 American children has autism.
The figure, which was announced on Friday, constitutes a small change from conclusions health officials made in October, estimating about one in 100 children were affected by the disorder, MSNBC.com reports.
However, the prevalence of autism has increased since the CDC began diagnosing children with an autism spectrum disorder in 2006.
Cathrine Rice, a CDC behavioral scientist, told the news source the increase in the past few years may be caused by more thorough diagnostic testing for the disorder or improvements in record keeping in the 11 states that were studied.
"At this point it's impossible to say how much is a true increase and how much is identification," she commented.
The new estimate was based on a study of medical and school records of about 2,800 children in Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Missouri, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Wisconsin.
In recent years health officials have encouraged more intensive screening for children with autism, believing that early therapy can improve a child's development, according to the news provider.
Researchers at the CDC have noted that parents of autistic children most commonly report anomalies in their child's development before the child turns 2 years old. However, the average age of diagnosis is about 4.5 years old.
Though scientists are investigating possible genetic and environmental causes for autism, currently, no blood or genetic tests can confirm the presence of the condition. Physicians diagnose the disorder by making judgments about a patient's behavior, recognizing language and social impairments as well as abnormal, repetitive actions.
According to the Autism Society of America, by 2017, the annual cost of treating autism will total more than $200 billion, though price tag of lifelong care can be reduced by two-thirds with early diagnosis and intervention.
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