Scientists May Be Able to Spot Autism in Infants

Research could lead to new therapies to treat the disorder earlier in children
By Linda Hervieux,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 16, 2017 10:31 AM CST
New Hope for Identifying Autism in Babies
A child with autism prepares food as part of a therapy program at Augusta Levy Learning Center in Wheeling, W.Va.   (Betsy Bethel/The Intelligencer via AP)

Promising new research may make it possible to detect autism in babies before symptoms appear. Researchers scanned the brains of infants with autistic siblings considered at high risk of developing the disorder themselves. They report in the journal Nature that brain changes identified in MRIs of infants allowed them to predict with 80% accuracy in the first year which ones would go to show autistic symptoms. Children usually do not show signs of autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), such as not making eye contact, until age 2 or older. Early intervention has been shown to ease and even reverse symptoms. Lead author Joseph Piven tells CBS News "the first year of life (is) where the brain is most malleable" and responsive to treatment.

Though small in scope, the first-ever study could lead to development of a tool to predict autism in high-risk infants—and perhaps in the general population—before their first birthday "to prevent these children from falling behind in social and communication skills," co-author Annette Estes tells the Guardian. One in 100 children develop autism, but that risk zooms to one in five for those with an autistic sibling, per Nature. Scientists analyzed the brain scans of 106 babies at high risk and 42 at low risk for the disorder. Those in the high-risk group who later went on to develop ASD saw unusual growth of the outer surface of the brains in the first year of life, followed by "an overgrowth of the brain" in the second year, Piven tells CBS. That brain growth was linked to ASD symptoms. ("Neural fingerprint" of mom's voice may help unlock secrets of autistic brains.)

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