In Breakthrough, Researchers Detect Autism Signs In Infants

16 February, 2017, 01:00 | Author: Archie Newman

University of Minnesota researchers were part of a first-of-its kind study that shows it's possible to predict, with high accuracy, if infants will develop autism spectrum disorder, depending on early changes in their brains and family history.

Researchers obtained MRI scans of children while they were sleeping at 6, 12 and 24 months of age. At that point, the overall brain volume increases faster in children with autism than in controls. Such interventions may have a greater chance of improving outcomes than treatments started after diagnosis.

The team also performed behavioral evaluations on the children at 24 months, when they were old enough to begin to exhibit the hallmark behaviors of autism, such as lack of social interest, delayed language, and repetitive body movements.

The researchers took all of that information about changes in brain volume and surface area and put it into a computer program in order to create an algorithm that they hoped would be able to predict which babies would go on to develop autism.

Giving children brain scans, particularly those in high-risk families, could lead to children being diagnosed earlier.

Schultz, Ph.D., is the director of the Center for Autism Research at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

The earliest that children tend to be diagnosed at present is at the age of two, although it is often later. This is important, says co-author Heather Cody Hazlett, a psychologist at the Carolina Institute of Developmental Disabilities, because behavioral cues don't work very well for infants: Before the age of two, children who go on to develop autism behave nearly identically to those who do not. "We do expect roughly the same prediction accuracy when more subjects are added", said co-author Brent Munsell, an assistant professor at College of Charleston, in an email to IEEE.

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Dawson says because the brain is changing so much in the first year of life, it may be a critical window of development when behavioral interventions-such as teaching a child to pay attention to a parent's facial expressions-might have the biggest effect. (Children who have older siblings with autism have roughly a 1 in 5 risk of developing the disorder; for children in the general population it's closer to 1 in 100.) For comparison, researchers also included just over 40 babies who were considered to be at low-risk of developing autism.

However, by considering other factors as well including additional brain measurements and the child's sex, the researchers used a statistical approach known as machine learning to assess with near flawless accuracy who would develop autism.

The researchers made measurements of cortical surface areas and cortical thickness at 6 and 12 months of age and studied the rate of growth between 6 and 12 months of age.

Its first author was Heather Cody Hazlett of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. The findings raise the prospect of diagnosing autism spectrum disorder (ASD) months before children develop symptoms, a goal that has proved elusive.

Fifteen of the high-risk infants were diagnosed with autism at 24 months.

"It provides new clues about the timing and specific mechanisms of brain development that precede a diagnosis", he said. Parents who already have a child with autism may find it particularly hard to show up for repeated brain scans, Piven says. "In Parkinson's, for instance, we know that once a person is diagnosed, they've already lost a substantial portion of the dopamine receptors in their brain, making treatment less effective". "It's the ability to detect autism at its very earliest stages that's going to allow us to intervene before the full syndrome is manifest".

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