With no cause and no cure, autism remains one of the most mind-bogglingly complex disorders for researchers to tackle.

But what if we could peer inside the brains of sufferers to see if therapies are actually reshaping them?

That's what a New Zealand team plans to do, in a world-first study combining the latest behavioural science with cutting-edge functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology.

Over recent times, people diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) as young as 2 to 3 years old have been targeted with early intensive behavioural intervention (EIBI), which draws on tasks and learning experiences to improve developmental skills.


A groundbreaking study, led by University of Auckland researchers and funded by the Oakley Mental Health Research Foundation, will now investigate whether these interventions have led to measurable changes in brain functioning and structure.

Dr Javier Virues-Ortega, director of the university's applied behaviour analysis programme, believes the project will be a pioneering effort to bring together behavioural and neuro-imaging experts to seek out any links or improvements therapies may have had on brain connectivity.

Dr Ian Kirk, a world-renowned expert in brain processes involved in memory and learning, is also part of the project.

The team plan to recruit up to 50 young people, aged 18 and under, who have received EIBI and other autism services while growing up.

"Over the last few years, there have been a lot of studies looking into connectivity networks that become apparent by simply observing the functional activity of the brain in a resting situation," Dr Virues-Ortega said.

"We want to see if these networks might be affected by the services that the person has received over the years.

"Presumably, those who have received more intensive, evidence-based interventions may show a characteristic signature, but we do not know yet."

It's been shown that these specific networks are linked with behavioural aspects - such as their ability to learn new skills and retain information.

"We want to characterise the brain connectivity patterns in kids and adolescents with high-functioning ASD, and potentially, we might be able to correlate these patterns with aspects of their present functional status and treatment history."

While there were approaches to fMRI where patients were asked to perform mental tasks as scanning was taking place, Dr Virues-Ortega said his team could make their preliminary assessments simply with the person remaining still throughout.

He described the study, which is expected to take one year, as a first step in what is a rapidly evolving field of research.

"This study is not supposed to be a final answer to anything, but simply a new approach that may allow us to get a much better understanding of the neurobiology of learning in people ASD undergoing evidence-based interventions."

Autism New Zealand chief executive Dane Dougan was just as excited by its potential.

"We're really supportive of work going into this area - knowledge is power and as ASD is now, there's no cause and no cure."

About autism

• Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is common among Kiwis, affecting more than 40,000 of us and occurring four times more often than cerebral palsy and 17 times more than Down syndrome.

• Disabilities associated with ASD vary widely - there's no single feature that defines them - but people diagnosed often experience challenges in social and communication skills.

• Because of ASD's sheer complexity and variability, finding effective treatments and interventions has long proven a headache for researchers.

Families with children and adolescents with ASD and Asperger syndrome are being invited to take part in the study. Participation will only require a few hours. Email Dr Virues-Ortega at j.virues-ortega@auckland.ac.nz