Brain scans detect early signs of autism

A new study shows significant differences in brain development in high-risk infants who develop autism starting as early as age 6 months. The findings published in the American Journal of Psychiatry reveal that this abnormal brain development may be detected before the appearance of autism symptoms in an infant's first year of life. Autism is typically diagnosed around the age of 2 or 3.

The study offers new clues for early , which is key, as research suggests that the symptoms of autism - problems with communication, and behavior - can improve with . "For the first time, we have an encouraging finding that enables the possibility of developing autism risk biomarkers prior to the appearance of symptoms, and in advance of our current ability to diagnose autism," says co-investigator Dr. Alan Evans at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital – the Neuro, McGill University, which is the Data Coordinating Centre for the study.

"Infancy is a time when the brain is being organized and connections are developing rapidly," says Dr. Evans. "Our international research team was able to detect differences in the wiring by six months of age in those children who went on to develop autism. The difference between high-risk that developed autism and those that did not was specifically in tract development – fibre pathways that connect brain regions." The study followed 92 infants from 6 months to age 2. All were considered at high-risk for autism, as they had older siblings with the developmental disorder. Each infant had a special type of MRI scan, known as diffusion tensor imaging, at 6 months and a behavioral assessment at 24 months. The majority also had additional scans at either or both 12 and 24 months.

At 24 months, 30% of infants in the study were diagnosed with autism. White matter tract development for 12 of the 15 tracts examined differed significantly between the infants that developed autism and those who did not. Researchers evaluated fractional anisotropy (FA), a measure of white matter organization based on the movement of water through tissue. Differences in FA values were greatest at 6 and 24 months. Early in the study, infants who developed autism showed elevated FA values along these tracts, which decreased over time, so that by 24 months autistic infants had lower FA values than infants without autism.

The study characterizes the dynamic age-related brain and behavior changes underlying – vital for developing tools to aid autistic children and their families. This is the latest finding from the on-going Infant Brain Imaging Study (IBIS), which is funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and brings together the expertise of a network of researchers from institutes across North America. The IBIS study is headquartered at the University of North Carolina, and The Neuro is the Data Coordinating Centre where all IBIS data is centralized.

Related Stories

Variation in brain development seen in infants with autism

Feb 22, 2012

Patterns of brain development in the first two years of life are distinct in children who are later diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), according to researchers in a network funded by the National Institutes ...

Autism researchers make exciting strides

Dec 12, 2011

Teaching young children with autism to imitate others may improve a broader range of social skills, according to a new study by a Michigan State University scholar.

In the brain, an earlier sign of autism

Jan 26, 2012

In their first year of life, babies who will go on to develop autism already show different brain responses when someone looks at or away from them. Although the researchers are careful to say that the study, reported online ...

Recommended for you

Planning a better future for people with autism

Aug 27, 2014

In the world of special education, transition is the move from school to adult life. For most of us that move can be awkward, but for people with disabilities—particularly autism—it is especially complex.

Are three brain imaging techniques better than one?

Aug 22, 2014

(Medical Xpress)—Many recent imaging studies have shown that in children with autism, different parts of the brain do not connect with each other in typical ways. Initially, most researchers thought that ...

Adults with autism at higher risk of sexual victimization

Aug 14, 2014

Adults with autism are at a higher risk of sexual victimization than adults without, due to lack of sex education, but with improved interventions that focus on sexual knowledge and skill building, the risk could be reduced, ...

Autism rates steady for two decades

Aug 14, 2014

(Medical Xpress)—A University of Queensland study has found no evidence of an increase in autism in the past 20 years, countering reports that the rates of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are on the rise.

User comments