Preschoolers with autism spectrum disorder may have abnormal connections between networks of their brain.

Researchers say these abnormalities can be seen using special magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) equipment.

They say the imaging could help in early diagnosis and treatment interventions for young children with autism.

They published their findings today in the journal Radiology.

Studying young brains

The researchers studied 21 preschool boys and girls with a mean age of 4 1/2 years. They compared those results with 21 children of similar age with typical development.

The researchers used an MRI technique called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), a process that focuses on the brain’s white matter.

The scientists used a graph theory with the DTI results to get a better understanding of the level of connection between brain networks.

Brain networks are areas connected by white matter that interact to perform different functions.

In the children with autism, the researchers said the DTI results showed “significant differences in components of the basal ganglia network.” That system plays a crucial role in behavior.

The researchers said they also found differences in the paralimbic-limbic network, another system for behavior regulation.

“Altered brain connectivity may be a key pathophysiological feature of [autism spectrum disorder],” Dr. Lin Ma, a study co-author from the department of radiology at Chinese PLA General Hospital in Beijing, China, said in a statement. “This altered connectivity is visualized in our findings, thus providing a further step in understanding ASD.”

Potential significance

The researchers said DTI scans could eventually point to imaging biomarkers for preschoolers with autism.

This, they said, could help professionals diagnose children with autism at younger ages.

That is important because younger patients can benefit from earlier treatments and interventions.

“The imaging finding of those ‘targets’ may be a clue for future diagnosis and even for therapeutic intervention in preschool children with ASD,” Ma said.

Ma said the imaging might aid in the delivery of therapies for children such as repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, and transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS.

TMS involves using a magnet to target and stimulate certain areas of the brain while tDCS relies on electrical currents to deliver therapy.

Both are being investigated as possible treatments for autism spectrum disorder.

Words of caution

An autism expert interviewed by Healthline, however, said it’s too early to jump to any significant conclusions about this particular research.

He added that the research might be of more use at the moment for scientists than it is for parents and educators.

“Although these findings may be significant in terms of better understanding what may be causing some of the clinical deficits seen in children with ASD, these research findings do not have any immediate implications for families in terms of either diagnosis or treatment,” said Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental & behavioral pediatrics at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park, New York.

He added that despite advancements in neuroimaging techniques, diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder is still based on clinical assessments.

He said these recent findings need to be replicated in other studies, ideally with a “larger, better defined sample of children.”

“Unfortunately, this is often easier said than done since doing these kinds of neuroimaging studies on very young healthy children can be problematic,” Adesman noted.