'U' researcher may have way to predict autism

'U' researcher may have way to predict autism”

By using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to study the brains of infants who have older siblings with autism, scientists were able to correctly identify 80 percent of the babies who would be subsequently diagnosed with autism at 2 years of age.

Researchers still aren't sure what causes this neurological development, but being able to spot it early on would enable doctors to give parents of high-risk children an earlier diagnosis and intervention plan. It is estimated that one in 68 school-aged children are diagnosed with autism.

For infants with older siblings with autism, the risk may be as high as 20 out of every 100 births. That finding is equally important because tests can't be used clinically if they wrongly frighten too many healthy people into believing they are sick.

Fifteen of the babies were diagnosed with ASD by their second birthday.

The surface area of the cortex grows significantly faster between the ages of 6 and 12 months in children with autism than in those without the condition, the researchers found. They scanned each child's brain-no easy feat with an infant-at 6-, 12-, and 24 months. They found that babies who developed autism experience a "hyper-expansion of brain surface area from six to 12 months" compared to babies who also had an older sibling with autism, but did not show evidence of the condition at 24 months, according to a news release from the U of M. Researchers built a computer program using the brain scans from those children to search for the same changes in other children. That brain volume "overgrowth" was linked to the emergence of social symptoms related to autism in the children's second year, which can include things like not engaging in pretend play and delayed speech and language. In a separate study published January 6 in Cerebral Cortex, the researchers identified specific brain regions that may be important for acquiring an early social behavior called joint attention, which is orienting attention toward an object after another person points to it.

Piven pointed out that newborns who have older siblings already diagnosed with autism face a five times higher risk for developing autism themselves. The idea would be to then intervene "pre-symptomatically" before the defining symptoms of autism emerge. In other words, in autism, the developing brain first appears to expand in surface area by 12 months, then in overall volume by 24 months. But brain scans could help, a small study suggests.

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"Children who end up with autism at 2 or 3, they don't look like they have autism in the first year, so behavioural assessments and behavioural studies haven't been helpful in predicting who's going to get autism", says Joseph Piven, a psychiatrist at the University of North Carolina (UNC) in Chapel Hill, who co-led the study, published online in Nature.

"Putting this into the larger context of neuroscience research and treatment, there is now a big push within the field to be able to detect the biomarkers of these conditions before patients are diagnosed, at a time when preventive efforts are possible", Piven added. "We haven't had a way to detect the biomarkers of autism before the condition sets in and symptoms develop", he said.

"We have wonderful, dedicated families involved in this study", said Stephen Dager, a UW professor of radiology and associate director of the CHDD, who led the study at the UW.

The National Institutes of Health (grants HD055741, EB005149, HD003110 and MH093510) funded this study.

"Our hope is that early intervention, before age two, can change the clinical course of those children whose brain development has gone awry and help them acquire skills that they would otherwise struggle to achieve", said Stephen Dager, a co-author at the University of Washington's Center on Human Development and Disability. It is a developmental disorder that varies in severity from person to person. Through its long-standing commitment to providing exceptional patient care, training new generations of pediatric healthcare professionals, and pioneering major research initiatives, Children's Hospital has fostered many discoveries that have benefited children worldwide.

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