Last weekend, I visited the new MEG centre here, which opened last year and aims to study brain function in people with autism. MEG stands for magnetoencephalography, and the idea is that you pick up the very weak magnetic fields that arise from the currents flowing in the brain when you're thinking. Unlike EEG (electroencephalography) you don't have to have electrodes stuck to your skin (although researchers stick a few "signposts" to the subject's head), and unlike MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) you don't have to lie inside a tube and suffer excruciating noise.
In MEG, the subject sits on a comfortable chair (my son tried it and seemed to like it!) with their head under what looks like a ginormous hair drier (although I am told it was a bit more expensive than a hair drier). Part of the special appeal to use this technique in autism, of course, is that it can be used with subjects who would not tolerate the "side effects" of either EEG or MRI. Thus, the building had to be designed to be both magnetic-studies-friendly (restricting the use of metal and the placing of electric cables!) and autism-friendly, which seems to have worked out well, as my son seemed to like the environment.
The research is led by Professor Anthony Bailey, who came to Oxford 3 years ago and did similar research in collaboration with an MEG facility in Finland before. I wrote a feature about his work for Oxford Today, which is here.
Further pieces on autism:
Gross M: Current Biology 12, No 2, R42
Battling through autism confusion
(about the 2001 MRC report)
Gross M: Current Biology 12, No 20, R679
Pursuing the puzzle of autism
A photographic exhibition at the Wellcome Trust for Autism Awareness Year highlights the continuing scientific uncertainty.