Methods for acquiring MRI data in children with autism spectrum disorder and intellectual impairment without the use of sedation

Christine W Nordahl, Melissa Mello, Audrey M. Shen, Mark D. Shen, Laurie A. Vismara, Deana Li, Kayla Harrington, Costin Tanase, Beth Goodlin-Jones, Sally J Rogers, Leonard J Abbeduto, David G Amaral

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

49 Scopus citations


Background: Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has been widely used in studies evaluating the neuropathology of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Studies are often limited, however, to higher functioning individuals with ASD. MRI studies of individuals with ASD and comorbid intellectual disability (ID) are lacking, due in part to the challenges of acquiring images without the use of sedation. Methods: Utilizing principles of applied behavior analysis (ABA), we developed a protocol for acquiring structural MRI scans in school-aged children with ASD and intellectual impairment. Board certified behavior analysts worked closely with each child and their parent(s), utilizing behavior change techniques such as pairing, shaping, desensitization, and positive reinforcement, through a series of mock scanner visits to prepare the child for the MRI scan. An objective, quantitative assessment of motion artifact in T1- and diffusion-weighted scans was implemented to ensure that high-quality images were acquired. Results: The sample consisted of 17 children with ASD who are participants in the UC Davis Autism Phenome Project, a longitudinal MRI study aimed at evaluating brain developmental trajectories from early to middle childhood. At the time of their initial scan (2-3.5 years), all 17 children had a diagnosis of ASD and development quotient (DQ) <70. At the time of the current scan (9-13 years), 13 participants continued to have IQs in the range of ID (mean IQ = 54.1, sd = 12.1), and four participants had IQs in the normal range (mean = 102.2, sd = 7.5). The success rate in acquiring T1-weighted images that met quality assurance for acceptable motion artifact was 100 %. The success rate for acquiring high-quality diffusion-weighted images was 94 %. Conclusions: By using principles of ABA in a research MRI setting, it is feasible to acquire high-quality images in school-aged children with ASD and intellectual impairment without the use of sedation. This is especially critical to ensure that ongoing longitudinal studies of brain development can extend from infancy and early childhood into middle childhood in children with ASD at all levels of functioning, including those with comorbid ID.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number9154
JournalJournal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders
Issue number1
StatePublished - May 5 2016


  • Applied behavior analysis
  • Brain
  • Compliance
  • Intellectual disability
  • Low-functioning autism
  • MRI
  • Neurodevelopment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Neurology
  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health


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