Through the development of a new data analytics tool, medical researchers at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom have opened the door to understanding the physical differences in the brain associated with autism, ADHD and a number of other cognitive conditions.
According to a report in the journal Brain, the Warwick researchers developed a method called Brain-Wide Association Analysis (BWAS) that is the first technique capable of generating panoramic views of the entire brain and accurate 3D models.
In the study, scientists used BWAS to determine regions of the brain that may contribute significantly to the symptoms of autism.
With their technique, the UK researchers could analyze over 1.1 billion pieces of data covering the nearly 48,000 different areas of the brain, known as voxels. BWAS essentially analyzes the total output of a functional MRI (fMRI) scan. Previous techniques used to process this level of information and were limited to modeling only small areas.
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The ability analyze the entire set of data from an fMRI scan supplied the Warwick scientists with the chance to compile, contrast and compare precise computer models for autistic and non-autistic brains. The team used data from hundreds of fMRI scans of brains from both types of individuals.
The Warwick team was able to spot 20 key differences between the two types of brains where the connections were either stronger or weaker. These differences were seen in areas linked to known autism symptoms.
“We identified in the autistic model a key system in the temporal lobe visual cortex with reduced cortical functional connectivity,” said study author Jianfeng Feng, a professor of computational biology at Warwick. “This region is involved with the face expression processing involved in social behavior. This key system has reduced functional connectivity with the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is implicated in emotion and social communication.”
Another key area with reduced connectivity, according to the study, is in a part of the brain’s parietal lobe linked to spatial functions.
Taken together, the findings in these two key areas are consistent with theories of the mind as they relate to autism. The team noted that these discoveries would not be possible without BWAS.
“BWAS tests for differences between patients and controls in the connectivity of every pair of voxels at a whole brain level,” Feng said. “Unlike previous seed-based or independent components-based approaches, this method has the great advantage of being fully unbiased in that the connectivity of all brain voxels can be compared, not just selected brain regions.”