Brain scans taken of children as young as six months old can be used to spot autism, a new study published in Nature says.
Scientists at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill say their technique can detect autism in a child way before they show any behavioural symptoms.
In most cases, the researchers claim autism spectrum disorder can’t be diagnosed until a child is two-years-old, although some signs could appear earlier. Traditional methods use observation to pinpoint subtle changes in behaviour: difficulty communicating, interacting or a lack of social skills.
But the problem with that, the researchers argue, is that precious time is lost. They claim if autism is detected in the early stages of life, intensive treatment may help to rewire the brain and reverse symptoms.
“It’s a time we’re talking about during the first year of life, where the brain is most mallieable,” lead researcher Joseph Piven told CBS news, from University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
Scientists took MRI brain scans of 106 babies who were considered “high-risk” for developing autism because they had a sibling who had the disorder. They also scanned the brains of 42 infants who fell into the “low-risk” category. The babies ages ranged from six, 12 and 24 months.
They also looked into past data from 318 infants with high-risk of autism.
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What they found is that babies with the disorder had larger brains than usual. By feeding the scans into a machine with algorithms, they were able to detect autism in some of the babies and were accurate 80 per cent of the time.
For reasons scientists don’t yet understand, an early growth in the outer layer of the front of the brain was the beginning of a pattern that led to larger brains in general, which have been associated with autism.
Although scientists don’t understand why such a growth in the frontal brain happens, they say detecting it enables them to diagnose at a much earlier age.
“I think it’s wonderful that they are looking into finding ways of detecting autism earlier and earlier. Certainly, early detection leads to early intervention, which leads to the best outcomes for the child,” said Lucie Stephens, the program director at Autism Canada.
The diagnostic method is still in the early stages, and researchers plan on confirming the method in much larger studies to be able to use it in clinics.
Stephens says there is no one tool to diagnose autism and is concerned with the burden some families would face in paying for MRI scans.
“Doing an MRI can be very expensive, so it becomes cost-prohibitive as a way to widely test children.”
Early intervention could include training for parents on techniques to raise a child with autism, as well as finding a style of behavioural therapy that works for their child.
“Studies have shown that early intervention, a minimum of 20 hours a week, can have great outcomes for children on the spectrum,” Stephens said.