Participating in autism interventions can be costly and time consuming, but new research suggests there could be a way to predict whether or not specific treatments will be effective.

In a small pilot study, researchers found that activity in two areas of the brain signaled how receptive adults on the spectrum would be to a social skills training program.

The findings published this month in the journal Behaviour Research and Therapy could lay the groundwork for more personalized treatment for those with the developmental disorder in the future, researchers said.

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For the study, researchers conducted MRI scans of 17 adults with autism ages 18 to 40 while they viewed various animations, some mimicking human actions while others were abstract.

The participants subsequently attended hour-long sessions twice a week for five weeks where they practiced social situations like job interviews, dating and dealing with confrontation in a virtual environment under the guidance of a clinician.

At the conclusion, the participants were evaluated to assess any changes in their ability to process emotions and understand other people’s perspectives. These results were then cross-referenced with data from the MRI scans to look for patterns.

The researchers found that people who showed greater activity in two clusters of the brain — an area on the left side that controls language processing and an area on the right that handles nonverbal social and emotional cues — saw a bigger benefit from the virtual social skills training.

Daniel Yang, an assistant research professor at George Washington University and Children’s National Health System who led the study, said less brain activity did not necessarily mean that the intervention would never be successful.

“If these social brain network regions did not show much activation, we observed that the person may not benefit from the intervention at this particular time but, as the brain is constantly changing, could benefit in the future, for example, by increasing pretreatment activation in these regions,” Yang said.

The research is believed to be the first to point to a predictive biomarker of treatment effectiveness in adults. Yang and his colleagues said the findings could have “far-reaching implications” for those with autism throughout the lifespan.

“This study advances us one step closer toward the goal of targeted, personalized treatment for individuals with autism,” Yang said. “We are very happy that this predictive method may be potentially able to help children, as well as adults on the spectrum, know which training might be worth their time and money based on their current brain function.”