Doctors diagnosed autism in children by using magnetic resonance imaging to track brain circuit activity, according to research that suggests the method may help speed up detection and add to knowledge of the disorder's biological base.

In a study of 60 children, half with mild autism and half with no autism, researchers identified the condition 94 percent of the time using MRI, according to a study online this week in the journal Autism Research. The scans helped show how information moves and is processed in the brain.

About one in 110 children in the United States have an autism spectrum disorder, a developmental disability that can impair behavior, communication and social interaction, according to the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. By using MRI, doctors were able to see thought activity by following the path of electrical impulses in the brain.

"We, for the first time, are able to begin to really see what is going on in the brain in children who have autism," said Janet Lainhart, an associate professor at the University of Utah, in a Nov. 23 telephone interview.

The findings build on earlier research of brain imaging to determine autism and may lead to a way to help doctors identify the disorder earlier, the researchers said. Current methods rely on interviews and observations.

The researchers from Harvard University, the University of Utah, Brigham Young University and the University of Wisconsin used an MRI test on 30 males ages 8 to 26 who had high functioning, or mild autism and also on 30 males who didn't have autism.

The MRI looked at water diffusion along the axons - the nerve fibers that transmit signals in the brain - to see how information was being processed, said Nicholas Lange, the study's lead author.

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