Rutgers researchers discover cutting-edge method of diagnosing autism

Dr. Torres and her team use fMRI database to detect autism devoid of cultural biases for girls.

Psychologists observed children playing with, using and responding to toys and objects to determine autism. Rutgers researchers say in a society where girls have been socialized to be quieter than boys, autism has been harder to observe in girls. It’s the result of using a male ruler to measure females.

When asked if the industry has missed the mark on proper diagnosis, Associate Professor and Neuroscientist at Rutgers University Elizabeth Torres replied, “Yes, absolutely. Why is there a ratio of five boys to a girl? That’s statistically impossible at the population at large. That was our initial curiosity, drive this.”

That curiosity led Rutgers Neuroscientist Elizabeth Torres and her team of post-doctoral researchers to the databases of the Autism Brain Imaging Data Exchange. The exchange has raw information of brain scans or functional MRI’s used for research, not diagnosis. They looked at the scans of nearly 2,200 people who had been diagnosed with autism or Asperger’s syndrome. Scans can detect involuntary head motion that the naked eye would miss. They show up on a graph as red lines.

Torres said, for too long, the scientific community has been looking at this information—from here outward and treating it as garbage, throwing it away. But she said that garbage is a gold mine.

“So, we reason that when you ask people to stay still and the nervous system won’t allow it, that in itself is a sign that the nervous system has a problem,” she said.

Dr. Torres drew a startling conclusion, one that made her doubt her own findings and turn the raw data over to other researchers. Helping with the research is Postdoctoral research associate, Caroline Whyatt.

“So there was nothing from Liz other than please take this data and do what you need to do and see what you find. Actually, when I analyzed I thought maybe I’d find a problem. Maybe I’ll find a boo-boo myself. And we both discussed it and we found exactly the same result,” she said.

Accordingly, along with her team, Torres concluded, “the females in the spectrum of autism can be better detected through biometrics that involve the nervous system particularly involuntary movements of the head.”

Their study has been published in the “Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience” and, according to Dr. Torres, has become widely read as the scientific community—especially over the last several years since it has been challenging the conventional way of determining autism. The researchers don’t advocate throwing out observations to make such determinations.

“They have a clinical and a really valuable use but what we’re arguing for is to update these tools and introduce statistical type of landscapes,” Dr. Whyatt commented on previous methods.

“What we cannot do is sweep this under the rug, give you a story about how the brain works, because I say so and ignore the actual problems. Particularly, because this has a direct impact in the lives of these families and the affected individuals,” Dr. Torres added.

The Rutgers team said it hopes the research improves the understanding of autism, how to diagnose it and how to provide for those with the disorder.