The study was published February 15 in the journal Nature. But he speculates babies who go on to become autistic experience the world differently in the first year of life than kids who will not have autism do-and that this altered experience of the world may contribute to subsequent brain development in autism.
"Typically, the earliest we can reliably diagnose autism in a child is age 2, when there are consistent behavioral symptoms, and due to health access disparities the average age of diagnosis in the U.S.is actually age 4", said co-author and UW professor of speech and hearing sciences Annette Estes, who is also director of the UW Autism Center and a research affiliate at the UW Center on Human Development and Disability, or CHDD.
The results: The computer program was able to accurately predict autism in eight out of 10 of those babies who developed autism by age 2. "When we know more about neural pathways, we can think more about the genetic pathways", he says. Yet, for infants who have an autistic sibling, the risk of developing the disorder may be as high as one in five. Other key collaborators are at the Montreal Neurological Institute, the University of Alberta and New York University.
'Now we have very promising leads that suggest this may in fact be possible'. "They have been willing to travel long distances to our research site and then stay up until late at night so we can collect brain imaging data on their sleeping children".
It is unclear whether brain growth will be predictive of autism in children without a family history of the condition. "We could not have made these discoveries without their wholehearted participation". Over the next 12 months, their brains continued to grow slightly larger than their peers in general. They assessed the children's cognition, daily-living abilities and communication skills.
Studies from the early '90s showed that children with autism often have larger brain volume. "We see an increased rate of growth of sort of the outer surface of the brain, the folds, the sort of waviness of the surface that's followed by an overgrowth of the brain in the second year", said Dr. Joseph Piven, the study's author. The unusual growth preceded a rise in brain volume over the following year that was linked to social difficulties the children developed.
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In the study, the researchers scanned the brains of three different groups of subjects with magnetic resonance imaging machines. During the study, researchers had to wait for each child to fall asleep. "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".
Studies have shown that earlier intervention can reduce its severity because of the "plasticity" of the brain at an early age, which can make it particularly receptive to cognitive and communication training, Elison said. "Once you've missed those developmental milestones, catching up is a struggle for many and almost impossible for some".
Could these brain changes be used to predict autism diagnosis in infants?
And he added, "There are no treatments agreed upon by the field for infants [deemed to be] presymptomatic for autism". In other words, in autism, the developing brain first appears to expand in surface area by 12 months, then in overall volume by 24 months. In a separate study published January 6 in Cerebral Cortex, the researchers identified specific brain regions that may be important for acquiring an early social behavior called joint attention, which is orienting attention toward an object after another person points to it. Still, with only 100 at-risk children, the study is too small to be considered definitive-nor should doctors rush to use MRIs to diagnose autism, Hazlett says.
As an NIH-funded Autism Center of Excellence, the researchers' data and tools are open-source and will eventually be submitted to the NIH's National Database for Autism Research.