Apparently, it may be possible to detect autism before a baby turns 1, according to a new study where a team of researchers are using magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs) as a way to do so.
Right now the earliest a reliable diagnosis of autism can be given is around 2 years old, because there are certain characteristic behaviors that will present themselves, such as an inability to speak several words together or avoiding eye contact. The new findings prove that it could be possible to find a diagnosis long before symptoms may start. The study researcher, Dr. Joseph Piven of the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities (CIDD) at the University of North Carolina, told The Huffington Post why this study is so monumental:
“The field has struggled to predict autism earlier and earlier. We’ve kind of reached a wall around 2 years of age. Prior to that, behavioral markers just don’t seem to help in detecting kids that end up with autism.”
In the study, which was published in Nature, researchers at various autism centers across the country ran MRI scans of babies’ brains when they were 6 months old, 1 year old, and then again when they turned 2–the study included 106 babies at high-risk for developing autism because they have an older sibling with the disorder, and 40 with low-risk for autism. It is believed that children with older siblings who have autism have a 1 in 5 risk of developing the disorder; for children without older siblings with autism, it’s 1 in 100.
What they found is fascinating. The MRIs showed that babies who developed autism experienced a rapid growth of their brain’s surface area and volume growth in their first year compared to other babies who did not develop the disorder. The excelled growth is linked to the social symptoms related to autism in a child’s second year, like delayed speech.
The cool science part about all of this is when the researchers took all of that information about the brain volume changes and surface area–and then put it into a computer program in order to create an algorithm. This algorithm is supposed to predict which babies would go on to develop autism. And it mostly worked, as they were able to correctly identify 80% of high-risk babies who were later given a diagnosis of autism at 24 months. Not bad at all.
Piven explained what this all means:
“We view this is, particularly in this high-familial risk sample, as a very real possibility of pre-symptomatic detection. So, detecting autism before it really appears. Before the consolidation of symptoms and brain deficits and at a time when the brain is most malleable, giving us the greatest chance of having an impact with early intervention.”
As of now, about 1 in 68 children in the United States have been diagnosed with autism. At the luckiest, parents whose kids are diagnosed early do get the benefits of early behavioral therapy. But for many, this is not the case, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says most children do not get diagnosed until age 4. Piven is also hoping that the MRI images could explain behavior changes in the first two years of a child’s life that result in autism, hoping it means that “we could sort of disrupt that sequence early on.”