A recently published article by researchers at the Yale Child Study Center revealed that naturalistic behavioral therapy can improve cognitive activity in children with autism spectrum disorder.

A collaboration between researchers affiliated with George Washington University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, John Hopkins University and Yale, the research relied on brain imaging to reveal that certain neural signatures in the brains of children with ASD can predict treatment effectiveness in young children. Specifically, these neural signatures are associated with social information processing, social motivation and reward systems. The results showed that brain scans taken after the treatment revealed more activities in regions of the brain implicated in social activities.

“We were able to see differences in the brain before the treatment started and after,” said Pamela Ventola, a professor at the Yale Child Center. “We used that to predict who would have a better response to the treatments.”

The methods have broad implications for the future of treatment design for children with ASD, according to the paper, which was published in the journal Translational Psychiatry on Sept. 27.

The researchers selected 20 cognitively able children with a primary diagnosis of ASD. They then took functional MRI scans — which measure changes in blood flow to different parts of the brain — of participants’ brains while the participants watched a video to establish a clinical baseline. The participants then partook in 16 weeks of Pivotal Response Therapy, a naturalistic and behaviorally based treatment approach aimed at increasing the child’s social motivation. The children played with balls and blocks and other toys during sessions in the clinic and in the participants’ homes, at the end of which, another fMRI was taken. Success was also measured by the Social Responsiveness Scale, a subjective test completed by the parents.

This method can be used to develop individualized treatment options for children with ASD. According to a March 31 press release, Ventola has already used this method to explore sex-based differences in treatment response. Boys are diagnosed with ASD four times more often than girls, so girls tend to be excluded in scientific studies regarding ASD, leading to treatment options that are more effective in boys than girls, according to the release.

The Yale Child Study Center was created in 1911.