Here We Go Again: Pseudo-Science and Autism
by Randy Cima, Ph.D.
In a February 17th story on NBC Nightly News entitled, Brain Scans Detect Signs of Autism in High-Risk Babies Before Age 1, Brian Williams reported the results of research on predicting autism. He characterized the research as “something surprising” and he said it might lead to better treatment for children “who haven’t even shown symptoms yet.” He summed up autism as a “neurological disorder that affects the ability to communicate and socialize.” Those terms “symptoms” and “neurological disorder” gnaw at me when the subject is autism.
The headline alerted me. I’ve seen headlines like this before. Here are a few of them:
- Could scans diagnose autism sooner? Images reveal how part of the brain differs in boys with the condition. Daily Mall, 2016.
- Brain Scans Can Identify Autistic Toddlers With Future Language Development Difficulties - MEDICAL DAILY, 2015.
- How Brain Scans Can Diagnose Autism With 97% Accuracy. 2014, TIME.
- Study: Brain scans detect early signs of autism - 2013 CBS Evening News.
- Brain Scans May Help Detect Autism - 2011, May, WEBMD.
- MRI Shows Differences in Autistic Brain - 2011, Sept, WEBMD.
- New brain scan to diagnose autism - 2010, August, BBC News.
- How Brain Scans Can Diagnose Autism With 97% Accuracy - 2010, December, TIME.
These were found after only a ten-minute Google search. There are more. As an exercise, I Googled “brain scan bi-polar.” I did the same for ADHD. You can see the results at the end of this article.
More than two decades ago, Dr. Peter Breggin, a nationally recognized psychiatrist, and critic of modern psychiatry, referred to brain scans as “brain scams.” They have not improved any since then. The science is primitive, and when used to predict or find ways to “treat” human behavior, it is useless.
Incidentally, this study about autism and a most recent study about ADHD were announced within days of each other (the ADHD study was also critiqued by ISEPP). The brain scans for autistic infants showed: “The brain volume of infants . . . grew faster in infants later diagnosed with autism, compared with those who did not receive a diagnosis. The ADHD brain scan study begins with this: People diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder have smaller brain volume than those without the disorder. Too much brain volume, autism. Two little, ADHD. Within 24 hours of each other.
Funded by the NIH and Autism Speaks, the study was conducted by the Infant Brain Imaging Study Network (IBID). IBID is a consortium of 8 universities in the U.S. and Canada. Dr. Joseph Piven is the director. On February 15, 2017, IBID posted a press release touting “researchers from around the country were able to correctly predict 80 percent of those infants who would later meet criteria for autism at two years of age.” It is an impressive number. It was part of every reporter’s story.
But let’s look at the numbers to understand this claim better. The infants were “high risk” or “low risk.” “High risk” infants have an older sibling with autism, “low risk” do not. They scanned infants, while they slept (sedated), at 6 months, 12 months, and 24 months.
One group consisted of 117 infants with no family autism history. The second group consisted of 248 undiagnosed infants, who also had an autistic sibling. The third group included 70 infants already diagnosed with autism, who also had an autistic sibling. It’s the third group of 70 infants this study highlights.
Looking a little closer, “The brain growth analysis included only 15 of the 70 high-risk children diagnosed with autism,” noted Emily Willingham* in her review, because they were the only participants who had MRI at all three time points (ages 6, 12 and 24 months).” She also noted. “the study population was not large, especially considering the reductions in numbers for some analyses.”
“We now have this finding in these high familial risk infants that we can predict 8 out of 10 that we think will get autism,” says Dr. Piven, IBID’s Director, noted. He agrees the results need to be confirmed with a larger follow-up study. Thus, Dr. Piven’s IBID team has applied for funding from the NIH to do the study. So, Dr. Piven is accurate. The 80% number is for the 15 children used for the brain growth analysis.
This is modern psychiatric science practice. Replicant science means the same team of scientists is allowed to replicate and confirm their own findings, so numbers can be both accurate and misleading at the same time.
I became interested in autism in the late 1960’s. By 1982, as a working professional at the time, my Master’s thesis was Autism and Self-Defiling Phenomena. For a year, I researched everything known at the time about autism. During the same year, I was an intern therapist for 6 families with one of these unique children.
None of the theoretical explanations at the time of my research had anything to do with medicine. The rate of incidence was 4.3 per 10,000. Since psychiatry has intervened, the rate of incidence has increased to 1 in 68. If you already have one autistic child, psychiatry tells us, chances are 1 in 5 you will have another. These numbers are absurd on the face of it.
Reading studies is routine for me. Like the hundreds of brain scans that made headlines, nothing will come of this. The IBID team will be refunded, no new tools will be developed, no new scans that will be embraced by their colleagues, more “evidence” will be presented, more “possibilities” will be exposed, and, as always, “more study will be needed.”
Mostly though, nothing will come of this because autism isn’t a disease, disorder, disability, defect, dysfunction or anything else that can be “detected” by medicine.
Finally, on the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism website there is a link "On Autism Orgs". Click on it at you find five tenets they adhere to, almost as a warning to other organizations. The first one is this:
"Support, not cure: autism is a naturally occurring human neurological variation and not a disease process to be cured. Medical or health issues that may accompany autism should be addressed independently."
*Emily Willingham is a biologist, research scientist, writer, and science editor for Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism, and for the past 20 years, has written dozens about the “science” of autism.
More on purported brain scan "breakthroughs":
The results to follow took 20 minutes to find. You can do the same. Google “brain scan” and nearly anything else. Here’s a few suggestions: anxiety, depression, spouse abusers, sleep deprivation, PTSD, concentration problems, homosexuality, sex addiction, obsession, disorders of dreaming (nightmares), anorexia. You can come up with your own. As you will see, nothing is too ridiculous.
My personal favorite? This one: Location of Sense of Humor Discovered – Medscape, November 2000, here. "A small part of the frontal lobes appears critical to our ability to recognize a joke," said Dean K. Shibata, MD, principal investigator.
2015 - Bipolar disorder: New MRI imaging provides new picture, new insight. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/01/150106081217.htm
2014 - Bipolar disorder: brain scans show excitable pleasure response. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/279338.php
2013 - Is it Bipolar or Depression? New Brain Scan May Have the Answer. https://psychcentral.com/news/2013/09/29/is-it-bipolar-or-depression-new-brain-scan-may-have-the-answer/60060.html
2008 - Cognitive neuroscience and brain imaging in bipolar disorder. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181872/
2006 - Finding Bipolar Disorder with MRI. https://www.technologyreview.com/s/405200/finding-bipolar-disorder-with-mri/
1999 - Brain Magnetic Resonance Imaging of Structural Abnormalities in Bipolar Disorder. http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/fullarticle/204822
2017 - Brain differences in ADHD. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/02/170216105919.htm
2016 - Can a Brain with ADHD Look Different? http://www.healthline.com/health/adhd/brain-scans
2015 - ADHD Patients' Brain Scans Showed This. http://www.webmd.com/add-adhd/childhood-adhd/news/20151215/adhd-patients-show-weaker-connections-in-brain-networks-tied-to-focus-study#1
2014 - Brain scans could save kids from ADHD misdiagnoses. http://www.wired.co.uk/article/adhd-scan-test
2013 - Reading the Brain: FDA Approves First Scan for Diagnosing ADHD. http://healthland.time.com/2013/07/16/reading-the-brain-fda-approves-first-scan-for-diagnosing-adhd/
2012 - ADHD and Stress in Children: Brain Scans. http://newideas.net/adhd-stress-children-brain-scans
2009 - Brain Scans Link ADHD to Biological Flaw Tied to Motivation. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/09/21/AR2009092103100.html
2007 - Brain Matures a Few Years Late in ADHD, But Follows Normal Pattern. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/news/science-news/2007/brain-matures-a-few-years-late-in-adhd-but-follows-normal-pattern.shtml
2004 - Brain Imaging Data of ADHD. http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/adhd/brain-imaging-data-adhd