Scientists have a valuable new tool for studying autism: a public database of more than 1,000 brain scans. The scans, which were collected across the country via functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), are from individuals with autism and typical controls who range in age from 6 to 64 years old.
The database, called the Autism Brain Imaging Data Exchange, will alleviate a serious problem in autism research. MRI has already yielded insights into brain structure and function in autism, but many of the existing studies were limited by their small size. (It's very difficult for any single researcher to collect enough brain images to run such a large study.)
To circumvent this problem, scientists at New York University's Langone Medical Center and the Kennedy Krieger Institute led an effort to pool scans done in labs around the country. Stanford neuroscientist Vinod Menon, PhD, is among the researchers from more than 15 institutions who contributed brain scans to the new database. He has used MRI to study autism before, and when I spoke with him recently about the research possibilities opened by the new database, his excitement was palpable.
"Any researcher who is interested in conducting studies of brain networks in children and adults with autism will want to look very carefully at this data," Menon told me, adding that the data set's large age span will let researchers ask developmental questions that would otherwise be unanswerable. And having the database of scans sitting ready for analysis will make studies faster, less expensive and more replicable, he said.