In Breakthrough, Researchers Detect Autism Signs In Infants

As part of the Infant Brain Imaging Study, a U.S. National Institues of Health-funded study of early brain development in autism, the research team enrolled 106 infants with an older sibling who had been given an autism diagnosis, and 42 infants with no family history of autism.

Research could then begin to examine the effect of interventions on children during a period before the syndrome is present and when the brain is most malleable. In addition, brain overgrowth correlated with the severity of social deficits that emerged by age two.

"So it gives us a good target for when the brain differences might be happening for children at high risk of autism".

They say they were able to predict which ones were going to develop autism with 80 percent accuracy. "It's been a continual goal of Autism Speaks and the autism community to drive the age of diagnosis to be as early as possible", said Mathew Pletcher, Autism Speaks' interim chief science officer.

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Current estimates suggest 1 in 68 children in the United States have been identified with autism, and while early intervention ― which at this point typically means behavioral therapy ― can be highly beneficial in managing and even erasing symptoms, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says most children do not get diagnosed until closer to age 4. 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. But studies haven't proven these early behaviors to be reliable predictors, said co-author Jed Elison, an assistant professor in the U's Institute of Child Development.

"It's showing us that the early postnatal years are critical to study in order to understand autism", says Mark Johnson, director of the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development at Birkbeck, University of London, who was not involved in the new work. Researchers found that the brain surface growth of the children who fit the autism criteria was rapid, far more so than in the other children. In other words, in autism, the developing brain first appears to expand in surface area by 12 months, then in overall volume by 24 months.

Numerous measurements the algorithm relied on most are related to surface area, and came from 6-month-old children.

"We haven't had a way to detect the biomarkers of autism before the condition sets in and symptoms develop", said the study's senior author, Joseph Piven of the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities at the University of North Carolina. And the team was pleased with the prediction accuracy. The findings raise the prospect of diagnosing autism spectrum disorder (ASD) months before children develop symptoms, a goal that has proved elusive.

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Elison has applied for a grant to conduct a new round of imaging studies in Minnesota, because he said this initial finding needs to be replicated with different children and different MRI techniques.

The molecular mechanisms underlying brain surface area expansion - many of which are known - may also provide clues to how autism unfolds, Piven says. "Now we have very promising leads that suggest this may in fact be possible".

But if the study results are confirmed in future research, it could offer a new option for screening high-risk children before their symptoms become obvious-and possibly at a time when treatment will be most effective. Parents who already have a child with autism may find it particularly hard to show up for repeated brain scans, Piven says.

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