Developing the tools to predict mental conditions:

Brain representations of social thoughts and autism diagnosis

Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) researchers have created brain-reading techniques to use neural representations of social thoughts to predict autism diagnoses with 97 percent accuracy. This marks the first biologically based diagnostic tool that measures a person’s thoughts to detect the disorder that affects many children and adults worldwide.

Psychiatric disorders such as autism are commonly characterized and diagnosed based on a clinical assessment of verbal and physical presentations. However, most recent research in brain imaging and cognitive neuroscience has proved to provide a powerful advanced new tool.

Published in PLoS One on December 02, 2014 the study combined functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and machine-learning techniques first developed at Carnegie Mellon which use brain activation patterns to scan and decode the contents of a person’s thoughts of objects or emotions. The previous work also demonstrated that specific thoughts and emotions have a very similar neural signature across normal individuals, suggesting that brain disorders may display detectable alterations in thought activation patterns.

In their study the research team supervised by CMU’s Marcel Just has successfully used this approach to identify autism by detecting changes in the way certain concepts are represented in the brains of autistic participants. They called these alterations “thought-markers” as they help identify abnormalities in the brain representations of certain thoughts that are diagnostic of the disorder.

“We found that we could tell whether a person has autism or not by the their brain activation patterns when they think about social concepts. This gives us a whole new perspective to understanding psychiatric illnesses and disorders,” claimed Just, the D.O. Hebb University Professor of Psychology in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences and a leading researcher into the neural basis of autism. “We’ve shown not just that the brains of people with autism may be different, or that their activation is different, but that the way social thoughts are formed is different. We have discovered a biological thought-marker for autism.”

In their study, Just and his colleagues scanned the brains of 17 adults with high-functioning autism and 17 neurotypical control participants. The participants were asked to think about 16 different social interactions, such as “persuade,” “adore” and “hug.” The resulting brain images showed that in the control group thoughts of social interaction clearly included activation indicating a representation of the “self,” manifested in the brain’s posterior midline regions. However, in the autism group the self-related activation was near absent. As a result, machine-learning algorithms classified individuals as autistic or non-autistic with 97 percent accuracy based on the fMRI thought-markers.

“When asked to think about persuading, hugging or adoring, the neurotypical participants put themselves into the thoughts; they were part of the interaction. For those with autism, the thought was more like considering a dictionary definition or watching a play – without self-involvement,” Just reported.

Implications of this research could extend to other psychiatric disorders, such as being suicidal or having obsessive-compulsive disorder, in which certain types of thoughts are altered. By providing a brain-based measure of the altered thoughts to use in conjunction with clinical assessments, this new research could enable clinicians to make faster and more accurate diagnoses and more quickly implement targeted therapies that focus on the alteration.

“This is a potentially extremely valuable method that could not only complement current psychiatric assessment. It could identify psychiatric disorders not just by their symptoms but by the brain systems that are not functioning properly. It may eventually be possible to screen for psychiatric disorders using quantitative biological measures of thought that would test for a range of illnesses or disorders,” Just offered.

It is claimed that this neuroscience research is on the vanguard of two fronts: firstly, it advances the scientific mission of classifying and diagnosing mental disorders based on behavioral and neurobiological measures (rather than conventional symptoms), and secondly, it integrates the conception of brain and mind by identifying thoughts in terms of brain function. One can wonder how this sort of research can influence psychotherapeutic practice and whether it can lead to plethora of novel considerations in this area.

Journal Reference:

Marcel Adam Just, Vladimir L. Cherkassky, Augusto Buchweitz, Timothy A. Keller, Tom M. Mitchell. Identifying Autism from Neural Representations of Social Interactions: Neurocognitive Markers of Autism. PLOS ONE, December 2014 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0113879

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