Scans predict autism in infants

This is important, says co-author Heather Cody Hazlett, a psychologist at the Carolina Institute of Developmental Disabilities, because behavioral cues don't work very well for infants: Before the age of two, children who go on to develop autism behave nearly identically to those who do not.

Studies have shown that earlier intervention can reduce its severity because of the "plasticity" of the brain at an early age, which can make it particularly receptive to cognitive and communication training, Elison said.

A recent breakthrough by researchers at the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities (CIDD) at the University of North Carolina could mean that doctors might be able to predict autism before age one. Other key collaborators are McGill University, the University of Alberta, the College of Charleston, and New York University. The Center for Autism Research (CAR) at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) was a major study site in the multicenter research project.

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, refers to a broad range of brain development abnormalities that cause struggles with learning, social interaction and verbal and nonverbal communication. The findings raise the prospect of diagnosing autism spectrum disorder (ASD) months before children develop symptoms, a goal that has proved elusive. There are about 3 million people with autism in the United States and tens of millions around the world.

Despite much research, it has been impossible to identify those at ultra-high risk for autism prior to 24 months of age, which is the earliest time when the hallmark behavioral characteristics of ASD can be observed and a diagnosis made in most children.

Doctors say they've found changes in the brains of infants, who later go on to develop autism. The subsequent overgrowth was then linked to the emergence of autistic social deficits in the child's toddler years.

Previously, researchers were only able to identify behavioral changes that met the autistic criteria at age 2. During the study, researchers had to wait for each child to fall asleep.

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The study also has implications for developing new autism treatments, said Schultz, a pediatric neuropsychologist. These so-called 'baby sibs' are about 20 times more likely to have autism than are children in the general population.

The researchers saw no change in any of the babies' overall brain growth between 6- and 12-month mark. Behavioral symptoms usually become evident between ages two and four, and research has shown that children who receive the earliest treatment tend to reap the most benefits.

"Putting this into the larger context of neuroscience research and treatment, there is now a big push within the field of neurodegenerative diseases to be able to detect the biomarkers of these conditions before patients are diagnosed, at a time when preventive efforts are possible", Piven said.

By this point, however, fundamental developments in the brain have already occurred.

The MRI data researchers gathered in the study - which also included children from low-risk families - was plugged into a computer program that came up with an algorithm to predict which infants would meet ASD criteria at 2 years of age. "We hope these ongoing efforts will lead to additional biomarkers, which could provide the basis for early, pre-symptomatic diagnosis and serve also to guide individualized interventions to help these kids from falling behind their peers".

For this research, NIH funding was provided by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), and the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering.

  • Toni Ryan