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Better access to the brain to help unravel autism

Researchers are using a new optical scanner

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ST. LOUIS, Mo. – A new generation of imaging scanners may help unravel some mysteries of the autistic brain. Scientists at Washington University in St. Louis are using a high-tech imaging system to map brain activity, without risky side effects.

Fourteen-year-old Grant Osmon loves competition and does great in school. But his learning process may differ from others his age. Grant has been diagnosed with autism.

"I know a lot of families that struggle with trying to help their kids reach their potential," said Chris Osmon, Grant's mother.

Grant is part of a research study of a new, optical brain scanner. The technology is called diffuse optical tomography, or DOT.

One researcher reads from a list and asks Grant to think of a word. Others measure the brain changes that occur during speech.

"As the brain thinks, neurons fire, and there's a variation of blood flow in the brain tissue," explained Joseph Culver, PhD, Associate Professor of Radiology at Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine.

Tiny lights directed at the head, highlight the color changes in the blood tissue of the brain.

"They're able to have an image of which parts of my brain I'm using to think about certain things," Grant explained.

Since the DOT scanner is open, researchers say it's great for face-to-face communication; crucial for studying autism and interpersonal skills.

Grant's family hopes researchers can someday use this information and develop new therapies for kids with autism.

"This should really be a great step in the right direction" said Grant's mom.

In addition to studying brain responses in a research setting, scientists say the new optical imaging technology is suited for children who could not stay still in traditional MRI machines, as well as patients with electronic implants. The DOT has no bulky magnets, and avoids using radiation.