Brain scans spot early signs of autism in high-risk babies

The researchers took images of the all the babies' brains at six, 12, and 24 months.

Although the driving forces behind the development of ASD are unclear, genetics appear to play a part; around 1 in 5 children with siblings who have ASD will develop the condition themselves.

The faster the brains of children with autism grow in their first year of life, the more severe their autism features are likely to be at age 2, according to a study published today in Nature.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina have developed a method using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in infants with older siblings with autism to correctly predict whether infants would later meet the criteria for autism at two years old.

Brain growth in babies may hold the key to unlocking an early diagnosis of autism in children.

Because brain plasticity is at its greatest in infancy, a better understanding of how autism develops could lead to better treatments for the condition, said two autism researchers not involved with the study.

Fifteen children in the trial had a positive diagnosis at 24 months.

Scientists then took the information from the scans and provided them to a machine learning algorithm and used that to predict autism in 24-month-old infants.

The results revealed that early brain development biomarkers could be helpful in determining which high-risk babies will go on to develop autism.

Enlargement of the brain seemed to correlate with the arrival of symptoms, says Heather Hazlett, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina's Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities (CIDD), and the paper's lead author.

"It was a small study, a little over 100 kids, so I don't know that we can now say as pediatricians, we should order MRIs for all these kids", O'Reilly noted.

"Decreasing the age of diagnosis, even by a couple years, could have profound impacts for the entire lifetime of that particular person", Pletcher told NBC News.

Autism affects one in a hundred people in the United Kingdom, with around 700,000 children and adults now diagnosed as autistic.

Dawson says because the brain is changing so much in the first year of life, it may be a critical window of development when behavioral interventions-such as teaching a child to pay attention to a parent's facial expressions-might have the biggest effect.

About 80% of the high risk infants met the criteria of contracting autism later on when they became full-fledged adults. "The studies on the anesthesia have found that the anesthesia is detrimental to babies brains", O'Reilly explained. In collaboration with computer scientists at UNC and the College of Charleston, the team built an algorithm, trained it with the brain scans, and tested whether it could use these early brain changes to predict which children would later be diagnosed with autism.

About Children's Hospital of Philadelphia: Children's Hospital of Philadelphia was founded in 1855 as the nation's first pediatric hospital.

He called the latest study "optimistic", saying it could represent a "giant step forward" in autism research.

  • Delores Daniels