Infant Brain Scanning Could Predict Early Signs of Autism

Researchers have made remarkable progress toward being able to detect early signs of autism in infants by conducting brain scans. Infants whose siblings are already diagnosed with autism are at a much higher risk for developing autism. However, researchers believe that with early detection, it is much more probable that a child can be diagnosed before having developed symptoms.

brain scanning in infants could predict autism
Researchers cannot predict whether infants may later be diagnosed with ASD. But a recent study suggests that brain scans could help. Coloured regions, in the above image, indicate areas of the cortex that have grown significantly faster in babies who were later diagnosed with autism.

What is the controversy surrounding autism in infants?

Many children show ASD symptoms beginning at age two, such as difficulty maintaining eye contact. However, some researchers argue that symptoms of ASD occur much earlier—possibly even in the mother’s womb.

Nevertheless, assessments concerning behavior and other related tests are futile and hold no ground in autism prediction, says Joseph Piven, a professional psychiatrist at the University of North Carolina, who co-led these studies.

“Children who end up with autism at two or three—they don’t look like they have autism in the first year,” he says.


Can anyone predict autism?

In the majority of cases, the answer is no. There are certain rare mutations which could be linked to autism, though it can never be pinned to any single or pre-existing genetic factors. In the early 90’s, Piven, along with other researchers did notice that autistic children had larger brains than their peers, which is believed to be one of the keys of bio-marking ASD.

What progress have the latest studies achieved?

One in 68 children is diagnosed with autism, and there is an increase of autism symptoms when older siblings are already diagnosed with the disorder.

Piven and his team were part of an Infant Brain Imaging Study (IBIS) funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). They scanned the brains of 106 infants who were deemed to be “high-risk” using MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging). These infants were in the age bracket of 6, 12 and 24 months. To get a clearer picture, 42 infants who were deemed to be “Low-Risk” were also followed.

What were the findings?

Out of the 106 high-risk infants, 15 were found to be diagnosed with ASD at the age of 24 months. Scan reports revealed that the brains of these infants grew at a faster pace between the ages of 12 to 24 months. The children who were not diagnosed did not have an accelerated growth and showed no signs of behavioral symptoms.

Can these brain changes indicate early autism diagnosis?

“We now know that with the high familial-risk infants, we can predict that 8 out of 10 are likely to develop autism,” says Piven, adding that behaviour-based predictions do no better than 50–50 at that age. “These have tremendous clinical implications.”

Will these results be used in clinics?

Though the findings are applaudable and significant, clinical applications prove to be limited, observed Cynthia Schumann, an expert in autism brain imaging.

“It’s an excellent piece of science, but ultimately it’s based on a few hundred individuals,” says Armin Raznahan, a clinician-scientist at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland. “The key thing is going to be replicating this.”

Can doctors do anything about autism?

The risk of autism cannot be reduced, although studies will assist researchers in testing intervention and determining earlier treatments.

Infant Brain Scanning Could Predict Early Signs of Autism
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Infant Brain Scanning Could Predict Early Signs of Autism
Recent studies suggest that brain scans could predict early signs of Autism in infants
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