Can Early Brain Imaging Predict Autism Risk?

Zachary BarrettFeb 17, 2017

Researchers looked at two groups of infants: a high-risk group of infants who had an older sibling with autism, and a low-risk group of infants with no history of autism. It was able to predict which children would develop autism with 80% accuracy.

Brain scans of babies may predict which ones will develop autism, a debilitating disorder whose symptoms can be softened with early behavioural therapy, researchers have found.

It's known that earlier intervention produces better results in those with autism spectrum disorder, coauthor Stephen Dager of the University of Washington in Seattle said in a statement.

Approximately one out of every 68 children in the United States has autism.

Signs of potential autism spectrum disorder can be detected in high-risk infants as young as 12 months with 80 percent accuracy, according to an worldwide study published Wednesday.

The study took place across a number of sites in the US, including the University of North Carolina, the University of Washington, Washington University in St. Louis, MO, and the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, PA. Other key collaborators were New York University, the College of Charleston, McGill University and the University of Alberta. "We could not have made these discoveries without their wholehearted participation". For the study, researchers conducted MRI scans of the babies at six, 12, and 24 months of age. "Often we don't keep in mind the degree of work it takes to do this kind of study", Dawson says.

In this most recent study, researchers across the country used an MRI to scan the brains of 6-month-old babies, 1-year-old babies, and then once more when the babies turned 2. Researchers associate this with a higher overall brain size during the second year of life, which is already an established marker for autism.

For reasons scientists don't yet understand, an early growth in the outer layer of the front of the brain was the beginning of a pattern that led to larger brains in general, which have been associated with autism. Still, with only 100 at-risk children, the study is too small to be considered definitive-nor should doctors rush to use MRIs to diagnose autism, Hazlett says. The ability to identify autism risk during infancy could set the stage for developing very early preventive treatments when the brain is most malleable.

"I think it's wonderful that they are looking into finding ways of detecting autism earlier and earlier". "Once you've missed those developmental milestones, catching up is a struggle for many and almost impossible for some".

One thing the study could not show is whether there is anything different about the autism in families that have more than one child with the condition, compared with autism that seems to have no familial connection.

"The results of this study are a real breakthrough for early diagnosis of autism", said Robert Schultz, who leads the Center for Autism Research at CHOP.

The findings published Wednesday could be a game changer, pointing to the possibility of identifying children on the spectrum at far younger ages and before behavioral symptoms become apparent, researchers said.

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