New Study Helps Predict Autism In Babies

Nevertheless, the researchers used scans to peek into the thickness, surface area, and shifting size of certain parts of an infant's cerebral cortex as the subject goes through 6 and 12-month marks.

This research project included hundreds of children from across the country and was led by researchers at the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities (CIDD) at the University of North Carolina (UNC).

They then noted which children had been diagnosed with autism based on criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and designed a machine-learning algorithm to discern the differences in their brains.

Characteristics vary from one person to another but they will usually be assessed as having persistent difficulties with social communication and interaction and restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviour since childhood, which can limit and impair everyday life.

Apparently overgrowth in the first year of life can indicate if a child will be at higher risk for developing autism spectrum disorder. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that one in 68 children may have autism spectrum disorder. Elison said "We're generating a prediction before the signs of autism can be observed, which is really groundbreaking".

In Breakthrough, Researchers Detect Autism Signs In Infants
Brain scans could identify babies most at risk of developing autism, study shows

For this Nature study, Piven, Schultz, and researchers from across North America conducted MRI scans of 106 high-risk infants and 42 low-risk infants at six, 12, and 24 months of age. "I think there's wide consensus that that's likely to have more impact at a time when the brain is most malleable and before the symptoms have consolidated".

This is possible for babies with older autistic siblings, as reported by the University of Minnesota. The expansion was often followed by an increase in brain volume overgrowth that, according to the study, "was linked to the emergence and severity of autistic social deficits". The babies ages ranged from six, 12 and 24 months.

The brain differences as computed by the algorithm were shown to correctly predict 8 out of the 10 children who would later go on to develop autism.

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. The diagnostic method is far from ready to apply in clinics, though; it needs to be confirmed in much larger studies.

But some experts say using brain scans to screen for autism is an impractical proposition; only about one-third of the infants enrolled in IBIS were able to complete brain scans at all three ages, Johnson notes. At the same time, the technique employed nearly flawlessly predicted which babies at high risk of developing the disease would not suffer from autism. Such interventions may have a greater chance of improving outcomes than treatments started after diagnosis.

  • Lila Blake