Neurobiologists at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot have discovered a biological marker that may assist in properly diagnosing autism and aid in its subsequent treatment.

Autism is one of the most misunderstood disorders in the modern world.  Currently it is diagnosed at around age three or four, relatively late in life and is difficult to treat because of the considerable range of degrees of communication and behavioral problems it encompasses.  In addition, researchers reported extreme difficulty in scanning children’s brains because they are unable to lie still in an MRI or CT scanner when awake.

Rafael Malach, together with Dr. Ilan Dinstein and teams of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of California, scanned the brains of sleeping children – with parental consent – in studies conducted over the last few years.  Their results showed some very interesting phenomena regarding the brain, such as the brain not shutting off during sleep and merely going into the equivalent of a computer’s standby mode with only the conscious nervous system being inactive.  The most important discovery was that the two hemispheres of the brain are synchronized, with each half acting in concert with its twin.

Malach discovered that the synchronization between the two hemispheres does not occur in autistic children and toddlers, particularly in the areas relating to speech and communication.  However, the weak to no synchronization was not present in normal or slightly impaired children.  In addition to this, the researchers discovered that the brain’s ability to coordinate between hemispheres affected the child’s ability to communicate and the lower the level of coordination, the higher the chance of autism.

As a result of the scans, the groups concluded that measuring synchronization “could help diagnose autism at a very early stage”.  In fact, when Malach’s group used the scans as a basis, they were 70 percent accurate in diagnosing autism.

The three teams’ next short term goal is to find additional markers that will sharpen the accuracy of the diagnosis so that the disease can be discovered earlier and consequently better understood and diagnosed.