"Mirror neurons allow us to learn without knowing we are learning and then respond appropriately in certain situations," said Ashtari. She hopes to explore the link between autism and mirror neurons in future studies, using brain imaging techniques to find out when, and if, mirror neurons are engaged at the appropriate times.
The challenge with imaging studies is getting beyond measures of volume to understand smaller and more localized changes, Ashtari said. Adding ABM to DTI gave the study researchers the ability to detect subtle regional or localized changes in the gray matter, which was not possible before, she said.
The brain structures of people with autism change over their life span, explained Ashtari, which poses a problem for researchers trying to understand the disorder. "I believe it's a very complex process the brain goes through with autism and we don't know much" about that process, she said.
Unfortunately, this new imaging technique can't be used to diagnose autism, Ashtari cautioned.
"Everyone is trying to find something that is very robust, to be able to say 'you take this test, do this screening, and then you know,'" she said.
Dr. Stewart H. Mostofsky is a pediatric neurologist at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. He agreed that it is too soon to use any imaging technique as a part of diagnosing autism.
"We are dealing with a disorder that is defined by symptoms," said Mostofsky, who was not involved in the study. He added that there are many different possible causes of autism, which means many different brain abnormalities. "The question beyond that is whether there is a common neuromechanism. That is not entirely
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