A leading theory on what’s behind autism could be based on nothing more than a testing fluke, researchers say.

Scientists have turned to brain scans in recent years to better understand what’s going on in the minds of those with autism. The findings from such tests have suggested that the developmental disorder may be the result of different areas of the brain not talking to each other.

New science is now questioning that theory.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

“Recent studies, however, have found that when a person moves their head while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)… it looks like the neural activity observed in autism,” write Kevin Pelphrey of the Child Study Center at Yale University and Ben Deen, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in the journal Nature. “That’s a sobering discovery: it means that a major source of evidence for a leading hypothesis on autism, and one that several research teams have pursued for years, may arise from an artefact.”

Pelphrey is raising red flags just months after he optimistically told USA Today that brain science focused on better understanding autism “has moved stunningly fast.”

Further research is needed to assess whether or not true differences exist between those with and without autism in brain scans, Pelphrey and Deen said in their article in Nature. Specifically they propose that scientists could measure the level of head motion observed during scans to factor in results. What’s more they cite a new method of “scrubbing” which could be used to remove the impact of motion on existing brain scans.

“Revisiting fMRI studies with these approaches would help establish whether there really is a connectivity deficit in the brains of people with autism,” Pelphrey and Deen said.