If you’ve ever had an MRI scan, you know that it can be hard to lie still in the noisy, claustrophobic scanner. People often move involuntarily, requiring scientists to correct or eliminate the imaging data during movement.
Recently, a collaboration of Rutgers University and Columbia University researchers used this seemingly unhelpful data to further their understanding of a neurodevelopmental disease.
“We asked ourselves, ‘What could these involuntary movements, which researchers usually consider a nuisance, tell us about autism?’" Elizabeth Torres, PhD, an associate professor of cognitive psychology at Rutgers, said in a news release.
The neuroscientists analyzed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data from 1048 participants, aged 6 to 50 years old, including individuals with autism spectrum disorders and healthy controls. The data was publicly available primarily through the Autism Brain Imaging Data Exchange databases.
The researchers determined that people with autism had more problems controlling their head movements than healthy controls. They also found that motor control problems were exacerbated with the presence of secondary neuropsychiatric diagnoses, lower verbal and performance intelligence and autism severity, as reported in a recent paper in Scientific Reports.
“For the first time, we can demonstrate unambiguously that motor issues are core issues that need to be included in the diagnosis criteria for autism,” Torres said in the release.
In addition, they found that psychotropic medications, commonly used to treat people on the autism spectrum, were associated with lower levels of motor control. These medications include anti-convulsants and anti-depressants. Autistic people who were taking more than one psychotropic medication moved the most during the fMRIs, and their movement worsened over the scanning session.
The researchers conclude in their paper, “Nevertheless, it remains to be demonstrated if changes in head micro-movements directly capture targeted changes in symptomology brought about by a specific medication.” Their findings are also complicated by the simultaneous presence of autism and other diseases, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. So more research is needed.
Previously: Tracking autism: a social neuroscientist’s hunt for autism biomarkers, New Stanford research offers hope for faster autism diagnosis and On genetics, immunology and autism: A Q&A with Stanford’s Theo Palmer
Photograph by Michael Phillips