Groundbreaking Study Might Help to Predict Autism in Babies Before Symptoms Appear

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In a groundbreaking study from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, researchers suggest that it may be possible now to predict whether an infant will go on to develop autism.

CBS News reports experimental research may lead to a new method that helps diagnose infants with autism before symptoms even show.

In what is touted an unprecedented study, researchers operated magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to study the brains of infants at high risk for autism — those whose older siblings had the disorder from the ages of 6 months, 12 months, and 24 months of age.

Researchers were able to correctly predict from the scans that 80 percent of those infants would later meet criteria for autism at 2 years of age.

The findings revealed that early brain development biomarkers could be effective in determining which high-risk babies will go on to develop autism.

Senior study author, Joseph Piven, M.D., told CBS that the overgrowth of the brain coincides with the behaviors typical of autism and only begins to emerge when the child reaches their second year.

“We see an increased rate of growth in the outer surface of the brain, the folds, the sort of waviness of the surface that’s followed by an overgrowth of the brain in the second year,” he said.

By identifying the brain changes early, researchers say there’s the probability to develop therapies that could intervene sooner, while the young brain is still maturing.

“It’s a time we’re talking about during the first year of life where the brain is most malleable,” Piven said.

MORE: Autism 101: Effective Ways to Help Your Child Communicate and Thrive

Though the current research was conducted in babies who have an older sibling with autism, researchers say it may finally be useful to the general population.

“We haven’t had a way to detect the biomarkers of autism before the condition sets in and symptoms develop,” Piven said in a statement. “Now we have very promising leads that suggest this may in fact be possible.

Expert says that early diagnosis is key because the sooner it is recognized, the sooner families and doctors can employ intervention strategies to improve behavior and communication. A 2014 study found that if intervention begins as early as 6 months of life, it can significantly improve a child’s condition and help to eliminate future symptoms.

According to the CDC, an estimated one in 68 children will develop autism in the United States. For infants with older siblings who are on the autism spectrum, the risk may be as high as 20 out of 100 births.

Most children are not diagnosed until at least the age of 2 or older.

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