Autism can be picked up as early as the first year of life using MR imaging, according to a new report.
“Our study shows that early brain development biomarkers could be very useful in identifying babies at the highest risk for autism before behavioral symptoms emerge,” senior author Dr. Joseph Piven, a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill said in a university statement. “Typically, the earliest an autism diagnosis can be made is between ages two and three. But for babies with older autistic siblings, our imaging approach may help predict, during the first year of life, which babies are most likely to receive an autism diagnosis at 24 months.”
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The multi-site study did scans at 6, 12 and 24 months in 106 youngsters with siblings who had already been diagnosed with the condition.
Such children stand a 20 percent risk of also having autism.
It also looked at 42 low-risk infants, who acted as controls.
The scans were analyzed with a deep-learning algorithm that focused on interpreting surface information that primarily used surface-area data to predict autism, and proved accurate 90 percent of the time, according to a report in The Philadelphia Inquirer
“These findings demonstrate that early brain changes occur during the period in which autistic behaviors are first emerging,” the researchers behind the study stated in the journal Nature
, which published their findings.
Prior studies had shown a link between brain enlargement and autism, known as overgrowth. The study found that “hyperexpansion of the cortical surface area between 6 and 12 months of age precedes brain volume overgrowth observed between 12 and 24 months in 15 high-risk infants who were diagnosed with autism at 24 months” the study's authors observed, noting that “brain volume overgrowth was linked to the emergence and severity of autistic social deficits.”
The study also highlighted that all parts of the brain do not overgrow equally. According to the Inquirer, “the rapid growth, particularly of the cerebral cortex — long before the brain overall showed notable enlargement.”
"The ability to accurately predict who will develop autism opens up tremendous new opportunities to develop effective therapies starting in the first year of life," study co-author Robert T. Schultz, director of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Center for Autism Research, told the paper.