Brain scans show potential to diagnose autism in infancy

PHILIPPE MERLE  AFP  Getty Images

PHILIPPE MERLE AFP Getty Images

The brain imaging scans, taken at 6 months, at 12 months and again at 2 years, showed significant growth in brain volume during the first year in babies who would later meet the criteria for autism, such as not making eye contact, delaying speech or other displaying other developmental delays. But they say that infants who have an older sibling with autism have about a 1 in 5 chance of developing the disorder.

Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), researchers took brain scans at 6 months, 12 months and 24 months of children who were at high risk for autism because their older siblings had the disorder.

Autism Spectrum Disorder is hard to diagnose in children less than two years of age.

The current research was only performed in babies with older siblings who had autism, but those who performed the study said the results may be useful to the general population eventually. "The fact that they're not consistent suggests that some of the expansion in surface area may actually not be relevant to the detection of autism", he says.

On the brighter side, the journal published in Nature found out that as early as the first year of life, autism can be detected. By looking at the results, the scientists revealed they could identify early signs of autism with 80 percent accuracy. "Because in a developmental disorder that you're studying longitudinally, you have to wait for kids to grow up", he said.

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In particular, the academics studied the growth in brain volume of the children who were later diagnosed with autism and compared the findings to brain scans of children who were not. Of those, 81 percent predicted to develop autism did so, and in about 3 percent, autism was predicted but did not develop.

Therefore interventionist measures have to begin early onwards to facilitate the infants towards recovery from autism. About 1 in 68 American children are diagnosed.

What they found is in children who went on to develop autism, their brains were developing differently already in the infant stage of life. At the same time, the technique employed nearly flawlessly predicted which babies at high risk of developing the disease would not suffer from autism. "Early intervention, before age two, can change the clinical course of those children whose brain development has gone awry and help them acquire skills that they would otherwise struggle to achieve". The study also showed that the rapid growth pattern originates in specific brain regions - particularly the cerebral cortex - long before the brain overall showed notable enlargement.

Researchers have known for a while that children with autism tend to have bigger brains, but they hadn't figured out when the brain got bigger or how it changes in early childhood. One consisted of 106 infants who were at a high risk of contracting autism. Other key collaborators are McGill University, the University of Alberta, the University of Minnesota, the College of Charleston and New York University.

"It's an excellent piece of science, but ultimately it's based on a few hundred individuals", says Armin Raznahan, a clinician-scientist at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

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