One in every 100 children is diagnosed with autism, a lifelong condition that changes how they see the world and interact with those around them. At the moment, children in the UK are usually diagnosed around the age of two, but new research published this week suggests autism is actually detectable in brain scans long before the symptoms appear.
Published in the journal Nature, the study tested 148 children, scanning their brains at 6, 12 and 24 months. Some of the children in the study had an older autistic sibling and were thought to be high-risk, others had no genetic connection with the condition and were considered low-risk.
If confirmed by further research, it’s possible that MRI scanning of this type could be developed to help families who already have an autistic child to access earlier diagnosis for subsequent children.
Scientists at the University of North Carolina noticed early differences in the brain structure of those children that went on to show signs of autism. Scans showed that the brain’s cortical surface area – the rippled outside layer of the brain which plays a key role in memory, attention and language, grew faster in the first 6-12 months in children diagnosed with autism. These brain scans were then fed into Artificial Intelligence software, which was able to predict which children would develop autism with an 80% accuracy.
Lead psychologist, Heather Cody Hazlett told Mother and Baby: "We found that the brain size was larger in children who developed autism at age two, and that this brain enlargement was also associated with the emergence of social deficits. We didn’t see brain overgrowth at the younger ages, but we did see hyper-expansion in surface area."
"The brain data, particularly the surface area measures from the first year, were also able to predict which children would later develop autism. This study shows us that brain changes are happening very early in children a high risk for autism."
The benefits of early intervention
Although this study is in its infancy, further research could go on to change how and when we test and diagnose children with autism. Infants with an older autistic sibling have a one in five chance of also developing the condition, so early sans of these high-risk children could lead to an earlier diagnosis.
Studies prove that early intervention can be massively beneficial for the families of autistic children, especially if behavioural therapies can be introduced before the symptoms arise. The researchers involved in the study confirmed that this is the time when the human brain is most malleable.
Yet is it too early to draw conclusions from this research? Carol Povey, Director of the National Autistic Society’s Centre for Autism, told Mother and Baby: "This study shows potential to help identify autism at an earlier stage in the younger siblings of autistic children, using an MRI scanner to recognise differences in brain structure.”
“If confirmed by further research, it’s possible that MRI scanning of this type could be developed to help families who already have an autistic child to access earlier diagnosis for subsequent children. This would mean those children could receive the right support as early as possible.”
Yet Carol also noted the importance of looking at the complexity of autism as a condition: “No single test is likely to be able to identify potential autism in all children, but this technology could help simplify and speed up the route to autism assessment for some children.”