(dailyRx News) Most children aren't diagnosed with autism until they are 1 or 2 years old, but new research reveals brain differences in babies as young as 6 months old who later developed autism.
The recent study may provide an opportunity for doctors to diagnose children on the autism spectrum disorder earlier, using brain markers discovered in MRI scans.
Joe Piven, M.D., director of the University of North Carolina's Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities in Chapel Hill, led the study, part of the Infant Brain Imaging Study.
They studied the brains of 92 children using MRI scans when the kids were 6 months old, 1 year old and 2 years old.
All the children had older siblings on the autism spectrum, so they had a higher risk of developing autism, and 28 of the children scanned did end up on the autism spectrum.
Using the three scans, Piven's team created 3-D images that mapped out the changes in each baby's "white matter" over time.
The brain's white matter has a higher concentration of the nerve fibers that transmit information among different regions of the brain.
Compared to the 64 children who did not develop autism, the images of the children who did develop the disorder revealed a different pattern for 12 of the 15 information pathways that Piven and his colleagues studied in the white matter.
Piven's team saw the development of white matter slow down in the infants that later developed autism, and there were differences in those children's nerve fibers.
"It's too early to tell whether the brain imaging techniques used in the study will be useful in identifying children at risk for ASD in early infancy," Piven said.
"But the results could guide the development of better tools for predicting the risk that a child will develop ASD and perhaps measuring whether early intervention therapies improve underlying brain biology," he said.
The research appeared online February 17 in the American Journal of Psychiatry. The study was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Child Health and Development, Autism Speaks and the Simons Foundation.
The research also received support from the National Alliance for Medical Image Computing through a grants from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering.