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Post-Birth Ultrasound May Show Autism Risk

February 25, 2013
Written by: , Filed in: Neuroradiology, Pediatric Radiology
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Babies with low birth weight who have a particular brain abnormality (as detected by an ultrasound scan in the first week after birth) are seven times more likely than those without the abnormality to be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder later in life.

That’s the conclusion of a new study led by Michigan State University researchers. The study was published online February 13 in the Journal of Pediatrics.

The brain abnormality in question is ventricular enlargement, which indicates general injury to white matter. Nigel Paneth, MD, senior author of the journal article, said:

This study suggests further research is needed to better understand what it is about loss of white matter that interferes with the neurological processes that determine autism. This is an important clue to the underlying brain issues in autism.

Dr. Paneth is professor of epidemiology and biostatistics and pediatrics at Michigan State. He was quoted in a university news release.

The study retrospectively examined 1,105 low-birth-weight babies in New Jersey who were screened in the 1980s for brain injury with cranial ultrasound within the first week after birth. Of those, 623 were screened at age 16 for autism spectrum disorder, and a selected subgroup of 189 received a diagnostic autism assessment at age 21. Fourteen autism spectrum disorder cases were identified.

The children who had ventricular enlargement were nearly seven times more likely to be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

“For many years, there’s been a lot of controversy about whether vaccinations or environmental factors influence the development of autism,” said lead author Tammy Movsas, MD, “and there’s always the question of at what age a child begins to develop the disorder.

“What this study shows us is that an ultrasound scan within the first few days of life may already be able to detect brain abnormalities that indicate a higher risk of developing autism.”

Dr. Movsas is clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at Michigan State and medical director of the Midland County Department of Public Health.

This study will not likely change the minds of those who attribute autism to vaccinations. (See this online Forbes piece, for example.) But it does appear to be a small step along the way to understanding this still-mysterious disorder.

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Related seminar: Pediatric Radiology

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