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Infants’ Brains Show Autism Signs At 6 Months

February 23, 2012
Written by: , Filed in: Neuroradiology, Pediatric Radiology
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MRI detects brain differences as early as six months after birth in at-risk children who later develop autism, according to a new study published online last week in The American Journal of Psychiatry.

Researchers used diffusion tensor imaging to scan the brains of at-risk children (those with autistic siblings) at six months of age. Those who later, at 24 months, were diagnosed via behavioral assessment as having autistic spectrum disorders (ASDs) showed significant differences in white matter fiber tracts—pathways that connect brain regions.

Jason J. Wolff, PhD, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina’s Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities, said:

This evidence, which implicates multiple fiber pathways, suggests that autism is a whole-brain phenomenon not isolated to any particular brain region.

Dr. Wolff was quoted in a UNC news release.

“It is clear,” the study concludes, “that the neurodevelopmental story of ASDs neither begins at 6 months of age nor ends at 24. Extending neuroimaging downward to infants younger than 6 months would help clarify the temporal origin of diverging trajectories, while extending neuroimaging to later ages would capture increasingly stable neurobehavioral outcomes.”

Interestingly, one measure of white matter development, fractional anistropy, actually was greater at six months in the infants who were later diagnosed with autism. But development slowed to the point that fractional anistropy was lower at 24 months in those infants.

Dr. Wolff said the evidence indicates that autism does not appear suddenly but rather develops over time during infancy. That, he said, means “that we may be able to interrupt that process with targeted intervention.”

The discovery of this possible biomarker may have important implications for the treatment of autism. As the study puts it:

Identifying infants at highest risk for ASDs before the full syndrome is manifest offers the possibility of implementing interventions that could reduce or even prevent the manifestation of the full syndrome.

Related seminar: Pediatric Radiology—Clinical and Radiology Perspectives

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