Sunday, October 14, 2007

British Researchers Unveil Brain Imaging Center Devoted to Autism Studies

Researchers at the Oxford University Department of Psychiatry announced the opening of a special imaging center to study the brains of both children and adults with autism spectrum disorders. The university is calling the Oxford Neurodevelopmental Magneto-
encephalography Centre the world's first brain imaging facility devoted to studying autism. It is located at the Warneford Hospital in Headington, England, about 56 miles west of London.

The magnetoencephalography technology, using a machine like the one pictured above, allows researchers to create a "window on the brain" of its subjects, allowing scientists to watch brain activity as it changes from moment to moment, of an individual subject while they sit upright and perform tasks.

The Oxford Mail newspaper reported the center's opening on October 12, complete with a ceremonial visit by Princess Anne, daughter of Queen Elizabeth II.

The brain scanning equipment costs 2.3 million British pounds, about $4.7 million at today's exchange rate. A Swedish medical equipment maker called Elekta makes this machine. (Note to e-mail subscribers: you can also see a photo of the machine here.)

This project fits into a broader effort to understand brain anatomy and genetic components of autism spectrum disorders, one of several themes of autism research ongoing around the world. Other notable research efforts are underway to examine potential environmental factors in the incidence of autism. You can read about past coverage of these and other notable research studies by going to Autism Bulletin's archives for articles labeled "research," or by clicking here.

Oxford unveiled plans for the brain imaging center in January. The university's press release emphasizes the need to make subjects comfortable while researchers monitor their brain activities. One look at the machine's large apparatus shows this could be a challenge with young children; notably, the Oxford facility is supposed to look less imposing. More from the press release:

The scanner will help Oxford University's autism research group, led by Professor Anthony Bailey, to understand the brain basis of autism. It will also be a resource for researchers from all over the UK.

MEG (Magnetoencephalographic) scanners provide a 'window on the brain': they allow doctors and researchers to view brain activity whilst a particular task is performed, showing both where and when different parts of the brain are active. The scanner measures the tiny magnetic fields generated by brain activity.

'MEG is ideal for studying autism,' says Professor Bailey. 'The scanner is silent and safe, children and adults can sit upright, and researchers are able to sit next to them, making it a stress-free experience. Imaging the brain allows us to compare the brain activity of someone with autism to that of someone without autism.'

MEG scanners allow the patient or subject to sit upright and unenclosed. MEG scanning also provides millisecond time resolution: in other words, it shows how brain activity is changing from one moment to the next.

Until now, Professor Bailey's team has traveled to Finland to measure brain activity, either taking with them adults with autism from the UK, or studying affected Finnish children. 'The new centre in Oxford will transform our research into the brain basis of autism,' he says. 'It will also be a resource for other autism researchers.'

Professor Bailey and his team's MEG research in Finland has already shown that human faces are processed in a quite different way in children and adults with autism. 'The next step is to understand why there is this difference in processing and how it changes with development,' he says. 'Ultimately we aim to develop more effective treatments.'

The £2.3m MEG Centre has been designed as a relaxing environment for children with autism, with plenty of exposed wood, natural light and open space. It contains a 'practice' scanner which allows children to get used to the process without using up valuable time on the active scanner.

Studies using the MEG scanner will form one part of the work carried out by the autism research group. The team leads an international study to identify autism susceptibility genes; uses several imaging techniques to understand the brain basis of autism; and is investigating how computer-generated worlds can be used to develop social skills. The team is currently looking for children and adults with autism to take part in their studies. Individuals and families interested in learning more about, or helping with, research by the group can contact them on

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