Scientists are learning more about ways to help identify autism early in certain children

AutismJenn Richardson / Unsplash‘High-risk’ infants had at least one autistic older sibling.

Autism affects about 1 in 68 children, according to the CDC. It occurs in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups, but boys are 4 to 5 times more likely to develop it than girls. Now, in a new study, scientists have shown that measurable brain changes may provide insight into early signs of the condition in children who are at risk for the disorder.

In the study, published in the journal Nature, scientists used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to study children’s brains. According to the study authors, previous research has suggested that larger brain volume (which can be determined via MRI imaging) may emerge early in the development of autism.

So, for the present study, the researchers took MRI images of the brains of about 150 children when they were aged six months, one year, and two years. The children were classified as either “low-risk,” meaning they had no family history of autism, or “high-risk,” meaning they had at least one older brother or sister with the disorder.

They then used an algorithm which took into account the MRI calculations of brain volume, surface area, and children’s gender (since gender had also been previously identified as a risk factor) to try to predict if the children would go on to develop autism by age 2.

Their findings suggest that measurable changes to brain volume occur in “high risk” children who go on to develop autism during the time in which children first begin to display autistic behaviour. They hope this could one day point healthcare professionals toward diagnosing the disorder in some children sooner, something that is currently a big challenge.

“By the time ASD is diagnosed at 2 to 4 years, often children have already fallen behind their peers in terms of social skills, communication and language,” said Dr Annette Estes, professor of speech and hearing sciences at the University of Washington, director of the University’s Autism Center, and coauthor of the paper, in a statement. “Once you’ve missed those developmental milestones, catching up is a struggle for many and nearly impossible for some.”

The team also gathered additional data about behaviour and brain structure. They hope to use this information to better understand how brain connectivity and neural activity may differ between those at high risk who do and don’t go on to develop autism.

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