Brain scans could one day help diagnose autism earlier

Brain scans may reveal signs of autism, which could eventually aid in early intervention therapies, according to new research.

Researchers using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner measured the brain activity of volunteers with autism spectrum disorders against controls and say the comparisons reveal disrupted brain connectivity that could serve as a neural signature of autism.

While the study is both preliminary and small -- including only 30 volunteers -- the findings, which appear online Friday in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, joins a wider range of autism research that could ultimately help supplement current behavior-based diagnoses and … Read more

Hacking for autism: Apps to help everyone on the spectrum

SAN FRANCISCO -- For people with autism, communication with other people doesn't always come naturally.

Recent high school graduate Shubhankar Jain understands -- his younger brother Paras is autistic. Watching Paras, who Jain said is intelligent but has difficulty interacting with people emotionally, inspired Jain to build an app, Audeo, that utilizes natural language processing and visuals to help autistic people learn how to communicate better.

"It's hard for them to parse the content and figure out exactly what the emotion is," Jain said.

Jain -- who started his own nonprofit to bring awareness to people living with disabilitiesRead more

MRI reveals kids with autism may find human voices irritating

It's long been observed that many kids with autism have a hard time communicating and socializing with others. Now a new study using MRI scans provides some clues as to why.

Thanks to a weaker connection between the brain's language and reward centers, the human voice may provide little to no pleasure at all to kids with autism.

As they report this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers were able to spot "underconnectivity" using functional MRI, which tracks blood flow to look for brain activity.

Researchers scanned the brains of 20 … Read more

Interactive robot aids autistic kids in the classroom

Nao is a humanoid robot created by Aldebaran Robotics. He wears a jaunty orange headpiece, moves his limbs, dances, and interacts with humans. Nao has held jobs ranging from human-machine interaction research subject to synchronized show dancer at events. His new role, however, may be one of the most impactful yet. ASK Nao is a special version designed to work with autistic children.

ASK stands for "Autism Solution for Kids." The robot is programmed with games and applications geared toward helping autistic kids develop social and learning skills. "Most children on the autism spectrum have a natural attraction towards technology and Nao's humanoid shape creates a perfect link between technology and humanity," said Olivier Joubert, autism business unit manager at Aldebaran.… Read more

uBiome project to sequence the bacteria that live on us

Oxford University Ph.D. student Jessica Richman, who today finished raising some $350,000 from more than 2,500 people wanting to take part in the uBiome project, isn't shying away from reality: "Yes, we are going to be sampling people's poo," she told the Guardian this week.

And for the squeamish, she offered an asterisk: "You'll only have to wipe it on the toilet paper."

The uBiome project is a "citizen science" effort to sequence the genomes of the trillions of bacteria that colonize our bodies and likely play pivotal … Read more

Brain scans may detect autism in babies and toddlers

Two separate studies published this month indicate that it may be possible to use brain imaging techniques to reliably detect autism in children as young as 6 months of age.

In the first study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, researchers from across North America working on the larger and ongoing Infant Brain Imaging Study used a type of MRI called diffusion tensor imaging to study 92 6-month-olds deemed high risk because their older siblings had been diagnosed with autism.

What they found is that the organization of white matter in the brain plays a key role. Specifically, they … Read more

Now Skynet can tell when you fake a smile

In the future panopticon society of all-seeing robots, don't count on expressing your loyalty to our metal masters with a halfhearted grin.

MIT boffins have already trained computers to recognize real smiles of delight from smiles borne out of frustration. And natch, they can already do it better than us lowly meatsacks. … Read more

The iPad -- it's not just for humans any more

People who work at Miami's Jungle Island zoo have figured out a hi-tech way to communicate with orangutans. Rather than using old-fashioned sign language, they're using iPads.

According to the Associated Press, trainers are working specifically with 8-year-old twin orangutans helping them draw, play games, and work on new vocabulary as part of a mental stimulus program.

"Our young ones pick up on it. They understand it. It's like, `Oh I get this,'" Linda Jacobs, who oversees the program, told the Associated Press. "Our two older ones, they just are not interested. I think … Read more

Bots beat humans probing brain's neural activity

In what could be a major boon for the study of brain disorders such as schizophrenia, Parkinson's disease, autism, and epilepsy, researchers at MIT and Georgia Tech say they've figured out how to automate finding and recording information from neurons in live brains.

The process, described this week in the journal Nature Methods, involves a robotic arm guided by a cell-detecting algorithm that can identify and record data from neurons faster and more accurately than we mortal humans.

"In all [the abovementioned disorders], a molecular description of a cell that is integrated with [its] electrical and circuit … Read more

Autistic kids generally shun e-mail and chat

Children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) tend to spend a majority of their free time in front of a screen, but little if any of that time on social activities such as e-mail or chat, according to new research out of Washington University in St. Louis.

Researchers analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Transition Study 2, which includes more than 1,000 13- to 16-year-olds in special ed who have ASDs, speech and language impairments, and learning disabilities.

While 28 percent of typically developing kids are reported as heavy TV watchers, this study found that more than twice as many … Read more